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How to Raise Helpful Kids

Amber Brandt  |  January 10, 2023
While there’s no magic formula for making your kids more willing to help around the house, over the past couple of decades scientists have uncovered two key ways you may be able to change the game at home.

Through observing a variety of cultures around the world for the past two decades, scientists have identified a special and surprising trend: Most parents simply do not struggle to raise thoughtful, helpful children. In most cultures, children ages 2 to 18 appear to simply wake up ready to help, and take initiative on family tasks like carrying groceries, sharing food with siblings, or doing dishes.

So other than some unexplained magic, what makes the difference in these households? The following two keys working in tandem:
  • Being intentional about how you respond. Experts have found that the single most formative part of raising a helpful child, is responding appropriately when they show interest. For instance, if your three-year-old insisted on scrambling eggs in a bowl instead of you, what would be your natural inclination? Allow them to attempt it? Grab the whisk from their hand? Distract them with a toy instead?

Anthropologists like David Lancy have documented that when parents allow their child to help – even if they are not yet competent and it may create more work for the parent – it encourages them to continue with a posture toward helpfulness and kindness as they age. And the reverse is also true. Constantly being shooed away or discouraged from helping erodes and eventually extinguishes a child’s desire to help. In cultures where the scientists found the children to be exceptionally helpful, there was also an overwhelming sense of welcome by the parents… even at the risk of a mess.

  • Providing age and ability appropriate mini-tasks. Recruiting your kids to help doesn’t have to be a grin-and-bear-it experience. The key is giving them small sub-tasks that contribute to the whole but align with their age and ability. For instance, instead of asking your 6-year old to load the dishwasher, you may request that they hand the dishes to you one-by-one while you load. Or rather than simply riding in the cart at the grocery store, you may allow them to grab nearby items from your list that they can reach and carry. These types of tasks can be as small as:
  • Putting their own socks in the hamper
  • Opening the door when your arms are full
  • Fetching something specific you need from another room
  • Setting the table after you’ve gathered the components.
But what if your children are older and less willing to help when asked?
  • Don’t shy away from asking anyway and compliment them sincerely when they help. Tell them how much it means to you.
  • Make it a “game.” We all know chores aren’t exactly “fun,” but if you can make your tasks a friendly competition and set a timer to see who can complete first, you’ll add more fun into the mix. Plus, many hands make light work, and when you can pound a project out quickly, you can move on (which is very appealing no matter your age).
  • Simply make new, appropriate chores part of the daily routine that must be completed before screen or phone time. It may be difficult to institute initially, but once the chores becomes a more normal part of their routine, they’ll settle into the expectation and have a better attitude about knocking them out.
This research was broadly covered and interpreted in the New York Times bestseller Hunt, Gather, Parent by Michaeleen Doucleff .