Let little hands help at home

Nourish — don’t quash — your child’s inborn altruism, says Dr Colm O’Connor
Let little hands help at home
HELPING WITH HOUSEWORK: A mother and daughter washing dishes together.

WE often think that trying to get our children to help us at home or elsewhere would be more effort than it would be worth.

We also tend to think that the only way to get children to help is to pressure them through bribery.

We generally think of work as something that people naturally don’t want to do and we pass that view on to our children.

But psychologists have found strong evidence that toddlers innately want to help, and if allowed to do so will continue helping, voluntarily, through the rest of childhood and into adulthood.

In one major study psychologists observed 80 toddlers interacting with their parent as he or she went about doing routine housework, such as folding laundry, dusting, sweeping the floor, clearing dishes off the table, and putting away items scattered on the floor. For the sake of the study, each parent was asked to work relatively slowly and allow their child to help if the child wanted, but not to ask the child to help or direct the child’s help through verbal instructions.

The result was that all of these young children voluntarily helped do the work. Most of them helped with more than half of the tasks that the parent undertook, and some even began tasks before the parent got to them. The children carried out their efforts with quick and energetic movement, animation, and with delight in the finished task.

Many other studies have confirmed this apparently universal desire of toddlers to help. For example, if you “accidentally” drop something onto the floor a child will typically pick it up and hand it to you. Children help, without being asked, most of the time.

Even infants as young as 14 months regularly to help in a situation, for example, where a parent cannot reach or get something.

This helpfulness is not done for some expected reward. In fact, giving a reward for helping reduces subsequent helping. If children are rewarded for being helpful, they are much less likely to help than were those who had not been rewarded.

The fact is that children help because they want to be helpful not because they expect to get something for it. Rewards tend to undermine this natural desire to help. For example, children who are rewarded for drawing a picture subsequently engage in much less drawing than children who are not rewarded for drawing.

Rewards change people’s attitudes about a previously enjoyed activity, from something that one does for its own sake to something that one does primarily to get a reward. This occurs for adults as well as for children.

We tend to make two mistakes regarding our little children’s desires to help. First, we brush their offers to help aside, because we are in a rush to get things done and we believe (often correctly) that the child’s “help” will slow us down or he/she won’t do it right and we’ll have to do it over again.

Second, if we do actually want help from a child, we often offer some sort of deal, some reward, for doing it. This is not good because we present the message to the child that he or she is not capable of helping; and in addition, we present the message that helping is something a person will do only if they get something in return.

The research I’ve described here suggests that, if you want your child to be a partner with you in taking responsibility for the family work, you should do the following:

1. Assume it is the family work, and not just your work, which means not only that you are not the only person responsible to get it done but also that you must relinquish some of the control over how it is done.

If you want it done exactly your way, you will either have to do it yourself or hire someone to do it.

2. Assume that your toddler’s attempts to help are genuine and that, if you take the time to let the child help, with perhaps just a bit of cheerful guidance he or she will eventually become good at it.

3. Avoid demanding help, or bargaining for it, or rewarding it, or micromanaging it, as all of that undermines the child’s intrinsic motivation to help.

A smile of pleasure and a pleasant “thank you” is good. That’s what your child wants, just as you want that from your child.

Your child is helping in part to reinforce his or her bond with you.

4. Realise that your child is growing in very positive ways by helping.

The helping is good not just for you, but also for your child. He or she acquires valued skills and feelings of personal empowerment, self-worth, and belonging by contributing to the family welfare. At the same time, when allowed to help, the child’s inborn altruism is nourished, not quashed.

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