We, in the United States and many other Western nations, more often think of children as sources of extra work than as sources of help. 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 punishment or bribery, which, for good reasons, we may be loath to do. We ourselves generally think of work as something that people naturally don’t want to do, and we pass that view on to our children, who then pass it on to their children.
But researchers have found strong evidence that very young children innately want to help, and if allowed to do so will continue helping, voluntarily, through the rest of childhood and into adulthood. Here is some of that evidence.
Evidence of Toddlers’ Instinct to Help
In a classic research study, conducted more than 35 years ago, Harriet Rheingold (1982) observed children ages 18, 24, and 30 months interacting with their parent (mother in some cases, father in others) as the parent 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—80 in all—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. Moreover, in Rheingold’s words, “The children carried out their efforts with quick and energetic movement, excited vocal intonations, animated facial expressions, and with delight in the finished task.”
Many other studies have confirmed this apparently universal desire of toddlers to help. A common procedure is to bring the little child into the laboratory, allow him or her to play with toys in one part of the room, and then create a condition in which the experimenter needs help in another part of the room. For example, the experimenter might “accidentally” drop something onto the floor, over a barrier and try but fail to reach it. The child, who is on the other side of the barrier from the experimenter, can help by picking the object up and handing it over the barrier to the experimenter. The key question is: Does the child come over and help without being asked? The answer is yes, in almost every case. All the experimenter has to do is draw attention to the fact, through a grunt and attempts to reach, that she is trying to get the object. Even infants as young as 14 months have been found regularly to help in these situations (Warneken & Tomasello, 2009). They see what the experimenter is trying to do, infer what she needs, and then, on their own initiative, satisfy that need.
This helping behavior is not done for some expected reward. In fact, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello (2008) found that giving a reward for helping reduces subsequent helping. In one experiment, they allowed 20-month-old children to help an experimenter in a variety of ways and either rewarded the child (with an opportunity to play with an attractive toy) or not. Then they tested the children with more opportunities to help, where no reward was offered. The result was that those who had been previously rewarded for helping were now much less likely to help than were those who had not been rewarded. Only 53% of the children in the previously rewarded condition helped, in this test, compared with 89% in the unrewarded condition.
This finding is evidence that children are intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsically motivated to help—that is, they help because they want to be helpful, not because they expect to get something for it. Much other research has shown that rewards tend to undermine intrinsic motivation. For example, in one classic study, children who were rewarded for drawing a picture subsequently engaged in much less drawing than children who had not been rewarded for drawing (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973). Rewards apparently 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 (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999).
We parents, in our culture, 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 toddler’s “help” will slow us down or the toddler won’t do it right and we’ll have to do it over again. Second, if we do actually want help from the child, we offer some sort of deal, some reward, for doing it. In the first case, we present the message to the child that he or she is not capable of helping; and in the second case, we present the message that helping is something a person will do only if they get something in return.
Cross-Cultural Evidence that Toddlers Who Are Allowed to Help Become Truly Helpful Later in Childhood
Researchers studying various Indigenous communities and Indigenous-heritage communities (communities not far removed from Indigenous ways) have found that parents in those communities respond positively to the desires of their toddlers to help, even when the “help” slows them down, because they believe that this pleases the child and helps the child learn to become a truly valuable helper. The research also shows that, by the time they are about 5 or 6 years old, children in those communities are very effective, willing helpers. Actually, “helper” is not even the right word here. A better word is “partner,” because they act as if the family’s work is as much their responsibility as it is their parents’.
Illustrations of this can be found, for example, in a study in which researchers interviewed mothers of 6- to 8-year-olds in Guadalajara, Mexico (Alcala, Rogoff, Mejia-Arauz, Coppens, & Dexter, 2014). Nineteen of the mothers were from an Indigenous-heritage community, still rather closely linked to their Native American roots, and the other 14 were from a more cosmopolitan, Westernized urban community. All of the children attended school, but the parents in the Indigenous-heritage community had much less schooling than did those in the cosmopolitan community. The research revealed great differences in ways that the two sets of parents described their children’s contributions to household tasks. According to the parents’ reports, 74% of the children in the Indigenous-heritage community regularly took initiative in family household work, without being asked, compared with none of the children in the cosmopolitan community. For illustration, here are quotes from two of the Indigenous-heritage mothers describing their children’s activities:
“There are days when she comes home and says: ‘Mom, I’m going to help you do everything.’ Then she picks up the entire house, voluntarily. Or sometimes, when I’m not done cleaning the house, she tells me, ‘Mom you’ve come home really tired, let’s start cleaning the house.’ And then she turns the radio on and tells me, ‘You do one thing, and I’ll do something else,’ and I clean the kitchen and she picks up the rooms.”
“Everybody knows what they need to do, and without having to ask her, she tells me, ‘Mommy I just got home from school, I’m going to visit my grandma, but before I go, I’m going to finish my work,’ and she finishes and then she goes.”
In contrast, the cosmopolitan mothers reported very little voluntary helping from their children and seemed to denigrate what little help a child did offer. Here, for example, is a quotation from one of these mothers: “I’ll walk into the bathroom and everything is all soapy, and she says to me ‘I’m just cleaning.’ I tell her, ‘You know what? It’s better that you don’t clean anything for me because I’m going to slip and fall in here.’”
All in all, the Indigenous-heritage mothers described their children as capable, autonomous, self-initiating, willing partners while the cosmopolitan mothers described their children as subordinates who generally helped only begrudgingly and needed to be told what to do. In the researchers’ words, “Most mothers in the Indigenous-heritage community (87%) reported that their children planned and chose their ‘free-time’ activities (work, unstructured play, homework, religious classes, and visiting relatives and friends), compared with only two mothers (16%) in the cosmopolitan community.” Indeed, other studies, involving first-hand observations of the children in their homes, confirm these parents’ reports. To many people in our culture, it may seem counterintuitive that children who were most free to choose their own activities, least directed by their parents, were the children who contributed most to the family’s welfare.
In some other essays in this blog (e.g.: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/200808/children-educate-themselves-iii-wisdom-hunter-gatherers) I’ve described children’s natural drive to learn by observing others around them and then trying out for themselves the activities they observe. Cross-cultural researcher Barbara Rogoff has described this mode of self-directed education as Learning by Observing and Pitching In, or LOPI (Rogoff, Mejia-Arauz, & Correa Chavez, 2015). Helping with housework is just one example of LOPI.
A How-To Summary
In sum, 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:
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.
Assume that your toddler’s attempts to help are genuine and that, if you take the time to let the toddler help, with perhaps just a bit of cheerful guidance, he or she will eventually become good at it.
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.
Realize 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.