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Little Helpers

Author | Nicole Hostetter

Photo by おにぎり on Unsplash

The other day my daughter asked to help slice tomatoes with me.

I scanned the pre-dinner scene in our kitchen: Dishes to be washed, a salad to be mixed, burger buns to be warmed, burgers to be put on the grill, drinks to get on the table, and tomatoes to be sliced for the burgers.

Helping my almost-five-year-old with this task would take away time from chores that really needed to get done. And my daughter’s idea of “helping” would really just turn out to make more work for me. More mess to clean. More tomatoes massacred.

But I looked at her face, her eyes hopeful.

“Sure,” I said, and handed her a small knife and a tomato. “Be sure to watch your fingers like we talked about.”

And we cut the tomatoes.

Helping her help me took time away from the other things I needed to do. But saying yes was just as important as those other tasks, if not more.

By taking my daughter up on her offer, I validated her desire to help, and showed her she was an important worker in our house who could contribute in a meaningful way. I hoped that by saying yes, I might encourage her to help again in the future.

Chore charts and sticker charts and schedules and allowances all have their place in the parents’ arsenal. But for me, in my stage of life with a preschooler and a toddler, I’m trying to do things organically and grow the “helper seeds” my little ones want to plant.

I trace this approach back to my days as an elementary school teacher, before I became a full-time mom.

When I was teaching, there was one goal above all others when it came to creating a thriving learning environment: Provide your students with ample opportunities for authentic, or real-world, learning.

The thinking goes that children who come to learning with a genuine interest are going to be more invested than those who are forced to learn without context or without a personal connection.

This framework for a classroom has translated nicely into parenthood, where there is no curriculum or how-to guide with standards neatly laid out (for better or for worse!). Instead, our kids learn by watching us, and by letting them help.

National Public Radio’s Life Kit Podcast team did a fascinating episode on this very topic recently. And what they found was that a real difference exists in how kids’ relationship to helping and chores develops based on their involvement at a young age with tasks around the house.

Co-host Michaeleen Doucleff explains, “In cultures that include kids in tasks, kids are more likely to grow up and still be helpful. In cultures in which kids are excluded or separated from these tasks, parents struggle to get kids to help as they grow older.”

The research they presented recommends that rather then excluding young children from helping (because they make a mess, or they can’t do the task “right”), go ahead and give them small “subtasks” like helping to open the door when you have your hands full of grocery bags. Or letting them mix the pancake batter, or wipe down the table after a meal. These are real chores, with real utensils (as opposed to play items) and real applications. When you ask them to help with the dishes, give them a real dish to wash, even if the water and soap make a mess.

“By practicing small tasks over time, kids build up their competency and confidence in bigger tasks,” says host Maria Godoy.

So even if my daughter made a mess of the tomatoes, I’m giving her confidence in her abilities as a helper, and hopefully fostering a positive feeling in her about housework. It’s authentic learning at its best. Inspiring her to want to help again. Letting her know she is capable and able.

I’m not going to pretend I have it all figured out. I don’t. Many days my husband and I find ourselves picking up the chaos at the end of the day because we were just too tired to delegate everything or guide our kids through the endless to-do list.

So often my modus operandi is to do the chores myself. To say no.

When I fold the laundry, it gets folded neatly. When I scrub the toilets, they sparkle. When I vacuum the floor, all the corners and baseboards get vacuumed too.

But when I do it all myself, I prevent my kids from having authentic opportunities to learn how to do these chores organically. Or how to do these chores at all.

This has been one of the harder lessons of motherhood for me: When my kids ask to help with something, I need to let them help. Habits build habits, and a habit built through innate desire to help is far better than one forced onto us by a yelling parent (or in my mom’s case, a wooden spoon across the backside. Ouch!).

So however you approach chores in your house, if you have little ones at home try saying yes every day to at least one thing they want to help with. Delegate at least one small task they can help you with. Even if it makes your work harder in the short term, the long term payoff may be a confident and more helpful big kid. And that makes a happier home for all.

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