In an experiment, Lucia Alcala a psychologist used a model grocery store with all the necessary components that she provided to 43 family homes with children 6-10. In order to understand what makes a child helpful versus bossy, she instructed them to help each other to find an easy route through the store while getting everything on a list.
Scientists have come to understand a surprising phenomenon, that children want to be helpful. They aren’t born lazy, or bossy, in almost all studies across the board, children jump at the chance to be helpful. If you are struggling with this in your household, it’s helpful to note that there are two major keys that impact this, according to an article featured by NPR.
Key #1- Do you let them help?
Think about this example. You are in the kitchen fixing dinner, and your child enters the room. They immediately pull a chair up and begin reaching to help. What is your first reaction? In many cases, as parents, we assume our child isn’t old enough or competent enough yet to do certain tasks. We may think they will do more harm than good. When explaining this, Alcala says in most cases, “What they say is that, ‘I know she’s not going to do a competent job, and she’s going to create more work for me….so the parents exclude the child from helping.”
However, Alcala doesn’t agree with this practice. When we shoo our kids away from helping us, over time they lose motivation. And this is exactly what was observed in her grocery store study.
Key #2- Provide subtasks.
To encourage your child to help in a mutually beneficial way, Acala suggests giving them subtasks. Rather than saying, “Can you go clean the living room?” break the chore down into small tasks. “Do you mind bringing me the covers off of the couch?” or “Will you pick up those four pieces of trash off of the table?”
Small subtasks help show them when it’s time to take action and how to be part of a team that helps each other.
Using the earlier cooking example, psychologist Sheina Lew-Levy says, “So, for example, you’re in the middle of cooking and the spoon is just out of reach, so you ask the child nearby to hand you a spoon.”
Small tasks encourage them to be helpful, provide clear instruction, and don’t deter your child from wanting to help, because you are including them and letting them do what they want to do most- help you.
Lew-Levy says, “The children start to preempt what’s needed, and then the fewer parents need to be telling them what to do… You can pull back on the teaching, and kids just do it on their own.”
As your children develop and become more competent, you can give them more complex sub-tasks.