Raising Helpful Children

Written by Ariana Crisafulli


Posted on April 26 2021


When I thought about writing a blog post about family chores and how to get your kids to help, what initially came to mind was ideas about chore schedules, allowances, and firm tones of voices. Although this may get your child to do their chores, they'll do so reluctantly, and might end up resenting you in the process.

"But this is just the normal process of growing up!" we may say. "Everyone knows that teenagers are rebellious, unhelpful creatures. That's just the way it is." 

Not so. There is a body of evidence that suggests that this is not necessarily the case. It all started with a psychologist named Suzanne Gaskins who was living in a small indigenous Maya village in southern Mexico in the 1990s. One day Suzanne was having a conversation with two young Maya sisters, aged seven and nine. Suzanne reported that, to her astonishment, the two of them were trying to outdo each other when bragging about how much help they did around the house.

Understandably, Suzanne was amazed. She started observing family life in the village and noticed that not only were children from a very young age helpful around the house, they helped out voluntarily, and dare I say… joyfully. 

After reading an article in NPR about this phenomenon, it occurred to me that it's not enough to make children do their chores; rather it might be possible to raise naturally helpful children.

But how?

Toddlers from a very young age are naturally helpful. Ever notice that when you're vacuuming or folding the laundry your toddler wants to come over and join in? There are a few reasons for this.

One is that toddlers have a natural inclination to do what the grown-ups are doing. This is how they learn, by emulating the adults.

Another is that young children want to be around their family. Humans are naturally social creatures, so doing what their older family members are doing makes them feel like they are a part of something. 

There is also evidence that children are happier and more confident if they are allowed to help. Helping out around the house gives them a sense of belonging within the family, and builds their sense of pride when accomplishing a task.

The key word here is allowed as opposed to forced. At first glance this seems like a nonstarter. Why would anyone not allow their child to help them? Obviously it's better to allow an eager child to help rather than forcing a moody child to do chores. This is what we all want. But if we look closer into our own behaviors, we may come to see that what we think we want and how we act may be two very different things. In fact, we may be sending the wrong message entirely.

It's not always our fault. Modern life is very busy, and the demands of day to day life often make us feel frazzled and impatient. If you're doing a task like washing the dishes and your toddler wants to help, you may send them off to play instead of allowing them to help. After all, doing the dishes may take twice as long if you go through the effort of setting up a toddler-friendly dish-washing station. Perhaps you set a plastic tub on the floor full of child-safe kitchen items with warm, soapy water, and give them a sponge. Your child will end up making a bigger mess rather than actually helping. In the end you'll not only have to wash those dishes again, but you'll also have to clean up the soapy mess on the floor. Not to mention that once you're done with the dishes you might have more household items to do, like laundry or vacuuming, and all you really want to do is plop down on the couch and watch your favorite show or absorb yourself in a book with a steaming cup of sleepy time tea. It's much easier to send your toddler away to play than to do double the work, when all your toddler probably wants is to play with their toys or be on the iPad anyways, am I right?

According to research, this assumption is also false. In one study, reported by NPR, 20-month-olds actually stopped playing with a new toy and walked across the room to help an adult pick up something from the floor. Kids want to help, so shifting our views from "my child will be happier playing by themselves" to "my child wants to be a part of what I'm doing, even if it means helping with cleaning" might make everyone's life much easier in the long run.

And this is something that Suzanne Gaskins and other psychologists noted in their observations among indigenous households in Mexico and Guatemala; the mothers there also experience the annoyance of allowing their young children to help, only to end up with a bigger mess than the original one. What these indigenous mothers know that we seem to have overlooked (or maybe forgotten?) is that these messes in the early years will pay off big time as the child develops into a helpful, happy, competent pre-teen, then teen, then adult.

The biggest problem we may have is that we're underestimating our children. We underestimate their desire to be helpful, and we don't give them enough credit for what they're actually capable of doing. If we see our child wanting to help, we may think that this is unusual, so our response is to reward them for their help so they'll do it again. But research shows that toddlers were less likely to help a second time if they were given a toy for their help the first time. Children are also less likely to help if the task we give them is a fake one. If the floor needs sweeping, and you know that giving this task to your child will only make matters worse, you might do the sweeping first and then allow your child to help afterward. But sweeping an already clean floor doesn't accomplish anything, and your child will soon catch onto this and lose interest. There is no satisfaction in doing a meaningless task, so your child will never build the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with actively helping. 

The interesting thing is that if we do the things we think will encourage our child to help (rewarding them and giving them fake tasks) and the child loses interest in helping, this only confirms our bias that children do not want to help. It becomes a vicious cycle. 

Another pitfall we might want to avoid is bossiness and criticism. This is something that the indigenous mothers studied by Suzanne Gaskins and other psychologists know well. Instead of demanding that their children help clean or cook, the indigenous mothers who were studied relied on their children's natural desire to help, and allowed them to offer help. No one likes being micromanaged or bossed around, and that includes children. Allowing them to innovate the way they help builds their problem-solving skills and their confidence and even makes the task more fun. They may make mistakes along the way, but that's just the way we learn. As they get older, using phrases like, "Could you help me with this?" rather than "You have to do this" will help to develop their natural initiative and will help to reduce resistance. Even better, offering a "let's do this together" will fulfill children's natural need to socialize with family and to work toward a common goal. Ideally, they will develop the sense that they belong and will feel that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. And isn't this what we all want? The worst thing we can do is yell at them or criticize them for the job they're doing. Associating help with positive feelings instead of negative ones is the key.

Although it's helpful to take notes from successful childrearing practices wherever they can be found, it also must be acknowledged that the environment and culture of an indigenous Maya family compared to our own is vastly different. This is an understatement. In our culture, we have far more distractions, for ourselves and for our children. Children distracted by television or iPads may be less inclined to help than children who do not have these luxuries. That shouldn't mean that it's impossible to raise helpful children; it might just mean that we need to be a little more attentive (which is extra hard because of all the distractions in our own lives as adults). 

If we want to raise helpful children to help us with our busy lives, it might be worth its weight in gold to be extra conscientious of the moments when our toddlers come to us to offer their help, even if their assistance isn't very helpful at first. In the long run, there's a good chance these messy toddlers will become helpful children and teenagers if their efforts at a young age are embraced.

In the bigger picture, it's not just about getting household chores done and having a clean home, it's about a wider culture of helpfulness that starts in the family. It's about having fun together doing the daily tasks that need to be done. It's about developing familial bonds and creating a profound sense of belonging and shared commitments. 

We'd love to hear what you think! Send us your thoughts in the comments section below.