MARIA GODOY, HOST:
This is NPR’s LIFE KIT. I’m Maria Godoy. For years, my friend and colleague Michaeleen Doucleff has been telling me about some cool research that has changed the way I parent my kids. And the result is children who are much more eager to pitch in and help out around the house. For instance, the other night, my 7-year-old daughter, Lily, made a potato salad for dinner completely voluntarily, and she even washed the dishes. Michaeleen has now written a parenting book called “Hunt, Gather, Parent.” And in this episode of LIFE KIT, Michaeleen joins me to talk about how to raise helpful and cooperative kids. Welcome, Michaeleen
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Hi, Maria.
GODOY: So first, we should say that we’re both moms. Besides Lily, I have a son, Noah, who’s almost 11. And, Michaeleen, Rosy is what now – 5?
DOUCLEFF: Yeah, she’s 5.
GODOY: And we both work on NPR’s Science Desk. So we always, always want to know what the research says about everything, including parenting, of course.
DOUCLEFF: Oh, gosh. You know, Maria, I’m actually trained as a chemist. So when I became a mom, I was totally into science-based parenting. But then a few years ago, I stumbled on some research that really shifted how I thought about parenting. The research looked at how moms and dads around the world raise helpful kids. We’re talking about kids like Lily, who do the dishes without being asked, kids who share a candy bar with a sibling before taking a bite themselves.
GODOY: So really considerate kids who do chores around the house without an allowance or punishment.
DOUCLEFF: No bribes or punishments needed – not even a chore chart. Many cultures don’t struggle to raise helpful kids. And recently, scientists have documented a few common practices that parents all around the world use to instill this quality in children.
GODOY: And I want to say, I’ve actually tried these, and they work. So today on LIFE KIT, Michaeleen and I are going to share what we’ve learned, how parents can nurture helpfulness in their kids and what practices can erode or even extinguish the desire to help. All that and more after the break.
All right, so we’re going to start with something kids everywhere have in common.
DOUCLEFF: Yes. If you look all over the world, kids ages about 5 and younger have one common characteristic. Actually, I’ll let Rosy tell you about it. This is when she was about 2 1/2.
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DOUCLEFF: OK, Rosemary, do you like to help around the house with chores?
DOUCLEFF: What do you like to help with?
DOUCLEFF: Making pancakes?
DOUCLEFF: Yeah. What else? Is there anything else you like to help?
DOUCLEFF: Wash the dishes?
GODOY: Oh, my God. That little voice. She’s so sweet. Yeah, young kids love to help.
DOUCLEFF: Exactly. And that’s our first takeaway. From Chicago to Jinai (ph), kids are born assistants. They want to help you. They want to do chores. That’s universal. And if you push that help away, then look out.
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GODOY: Oh, yeah. I remember those days.
DOUCLEFF: Oh, me, too. When Rosy wanted to help, I would tell her to go play, and she would not like it.
GODOY: You know, that’s exactly what I did with my older kid, Noah. And whenever he wanted to help make dinner or do the dishes when he was little, I just shooed him away. I said, go play Legos or something.
DOUCLEFF: And I’ll admit it; I would sometimes put on cartoons because Rosy would just slow me down.
GODOY: Or make a mess or break something.
DOUCLEFF: Yep. Sometimes I would even wait to do chores while Rosy was napping or after she went to bed. Then I started to learn about some remarkable research from a psychologist at California State University, Fullerton.
LUCIA ALCALA: All right. So my name is Lucia Alcala.
DOUCLEFF: For more than a decade, Alcala has been studying how children learn to help around the house. She studies families both in the U.S. and in Mexico with several different backgrounds. She says that although young kids everywhere want to help, what’s not universal is how parents respond to that help.
ALCALA: How we push them away or we, you know, encourage that is very different.
GODOY: So in other words, if I’m washing dishes after dinner and Lily comes over and grabs a sponge from my hand, it matters how I respond to her.
DOUCLEFF: Right. Your response may be key to whether or not Lily, when she’s 12, still wants to help with the dishes or just rolls her eyes when you ask.
GODOY: Interesting. So very long-term stakes here.
DOUCLEFF: Alcala and her team have asked this type of question to parents in several studies. In some cultures, both here in the U.S. and in Mexico, some mothers say…
ALCALA: What they said was, you know, I don’t allow her to help me because I know she’s not going to do a competent job, and that’s just going to create more work for me, so excluding them from helping because they’re not competent yet.
DOUCLEFF: Alcala says this excluding kids from chores can have negative consequences, especially over time. It can erode a child’s willingness to help.
GODOY: Because it essentially tells the child, chores and helping aren’t for you.
DOUCLEFF: Exactly. And so that’s our second takeaway. If a child shows interest in a chore, no matter their age, resist that urge to shoo them away or exclude them. Alcala has even demonstrated the importance of this effect in a study in California. She created a task for siblings to work on together.
ALCALA: We created a table-top model grocery store.
DOUCLEFF: Then she brought the store to 30 families’ homes, each with siblings ages 6 to 10. The group was a mix of families with European heritage and ones with Mexican Indigenous heritage.
GODOY: Indigenous heritage like the Maya?
DOUCLEFF: Yes, like Maya or Nahua.
GODOY: Which is cool because my grandma was actually Maya.
DOUCLEFF: I did not know that.
GODOY: Yup, true story. Anyway, keep going.
DOUCLEFF: So then Alcala asked the pairs of siblings to plan an efficient route through the store. And she told them…
ALCALA: To work together, to collaborate, help each other – very specific instructions. And we thought, you know, both groups were going to collaborate equally because it was so clear on the instructions.
DOUCLEFF: But with some siblings, that’s not always what happened. She remembers one little boy who was always being shooed away by his older sibling when he tried to help.
ALCALA: And so what happens in that particular pair and I think in other pairs was that after they tried for a while, they kind of lose interest. So in one case, the younger sibling just goes under the table and kind of gives up. In another case, he just, you know, goes away and doesn’t want to continue because there’s no room for him to be part of this.
DOUCLEFF: In another pair, a little brother tries to point to a grocery item to grab, and his older brother pushes his hand out of the way, something I’ve actually done with Rosy when she tries to help me.
ALCALA: The little boy that was pushed away, what he did was he just kept talking to himself, entertaining himself. And the brother completely ignore him. You know, he never acknowledges anything that he’d say.
DOUCLEFF: How much the kids collaborated fell along cultural lines. The kids with Mexican Indigenous heritage collaborated on average about twice as much as kids with the European American heritage. And, Maria, it’s not just about these two cultures. These findings fit in with other research about child development in many parts of the world. It goes beyond that. 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.
GODOY: You get fights, in other words.
DOUCLEFF: That’s right. Alcala is one of the leading researchers in this field. I visited one of the Maya communities she works with in the Yucatan with her collaborator Suzanne Gaskins, who’s an anthropological psychologist at Northeastern Illinois University. We aren’t going to name the village to respect their privacy. While I was there, I met a mom who gave me similar advice. Her name is Maria Tun Burgos. She has three daughters. She told me her 4-year-old always wants to help her with every chore.
MARIA TUN BURGOS: (Through interpreter) When I’m making tortillas, she starts crying if I don’t let her make tortillas, too. So I let her make a tortilla.
DOUCLEFF: Does she help you? Is it useful?
TUN BURGOS: (Through interpreter) It doesn’t matter. She wants to help.
DOUCLEFF: So you let her help whenever she wants to help?
TUN BURGOS: (Through interpreter) Yes, that’s the way to teach them. They need to learn how to do it.
GODOY: So you just let them do the chores even if they’re no good at it.
DOUCLEFF: That’s the basic idea. Another psychologist named Rebeca Mejia-Arauz has come up with similar results. She’s with ITESO university in Guadalajara.
REBECA MEJIA-ARAUZ: Letting them do in the way that they can I think it’s really very important.
DOUCLEFF: Even if it means at the beginning, things going more slowly.
MEJIA-ARAUZ: Yes, exactly. Yeah.
DOUCLEFF: She interviewed moms with ties to another Indigenous community in Mexico called Nahua.
MEJIA-ARAUZ: We have interviews with mothers in which they say, well, for example, doing the dishes – at the beginning, the water was all over the place and so on and so – but I would allow him to do these so they learn.
DOUCLEFF: It’s kind of like an investment. Put up with the mess right now or take extra time. Over the course of years, the child will learn and be – and then be a help.
So that’s our takeaway No. 3 – when a child, no matter their age, jumps in to help, acknowledge their contributions by allowing them to help. Give them a shot. And resist the urge to give a bunch of instructions.
GODOY: So don’t micromanage what they’re doing or turn the activity into some kind of school lecture.
DOUCLEFF: Yeah, turning the chore into a lecture can also demotivate children. Instead, step back and let the child try.
GODOY: But what do you do if the task is too dangerous? Like, say Lily wants to use a super sharp chef’s knife to chop vegetables?
DOUCLEFF: Mejia-Arauz says tell her to watch, or you can give her a piece of equipment, real equipment, so she can practice on the side, like a piece of vegetable and a dull knife for cutting. For instance, Mejia-Arauz says when moms are sewing, they’ll give a child a piece of cloth to practice with.
MEJIA-ARAUZ: They are just playing with the cloth, and they are mimicking what the mother is doing. And later on, the mother will allow them to have some of the instruments, also.
GODOY: And what do you do when the child starts to make a huge mess? Like one time – actually, more than one time – let’s be honest – Lily has been doing the dishes, and she’s basically spilled water everywhere – all over the counters, the floors – you know, like epic mess level.
DOUCLEFF: Yeah, that has happened in our house, too. For these moments, you just have to have a little patience and gently guide the child back into being productive. So if Rosy is spraying the water with the faucet, I’ll turn off the water and say something like, water stays in the sink. And then I’ll execute the last takeaway. Give the child a small subtask of what you’re doing.
GODOY: So something like, here, dry this dish or, here, squeeze some soap on the sponge – that kind of thing?
DOUCLEFF: Yeah, exactly. In fact, Maria, in many cultures around the world, parents don’t wait for the child to run over and show interest in a task. Instead, they recruit the child to help. And they start this recruitment way earlier than many parents do here in the U.S. Lucia Alcala and her colleague Maria Dolores Cervera at Cinvestav Unidad Merida have documented this. They asked Mayan moms, when can kids start helping?
ALCALA: One said, you know, as early as they can walk. You know, you can ask them, you know, can you bring me this or, you know, can you pick up your shoes or, you know, your toys? And, you know, being exposed and having access to seeing people at work, that’s how you’re going to get them to learn. So it’s early on.
DOUCLEFF: Did you catch that? As soon as they can walk, you start requesting their help.
GODOY: OK, but seriously, how can a little, wobbly toddler do chores? They can barely stand up straight.
DOUCLEFF: It sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? But here’s the thing, Maria. These requests to help are a bit different than what you might think. I’m not talking about requests like, Rosy, go clean up the living room or, Rosy, go load the dishwasher or even, go make your bed. I’m talking about tiny, tiny subtasks of things you’re already doing. And even though the tasks are small, they make a real contribution. Again, Rosy can tell you some examples of these subtasks I’ve been using with her since she was 3, and now she’s 5.
So, Rosy, say I’ve got the recycle stuff in the garbage, and I’m getting ready to leave the door. What do I say?
ROSY: Rosy, can you open the door so that I can go to put the recycle out?
DOUCLEFF: What about if it’s time to set the table? I hand you a plate, and I say what?
ROSY: Can you please put the plate on the table so that we can eat dinner?
GODOY: Toddlers and young kids love to do these small subtasks. In the kitchen, Lily does a whole bunch of things. She cracks eggs, stirs the pancake mix, throws in the chocolate chips when we make cookies. She likes to help me wipe down the counters, too.
DOUCLEFF: While cleaning, Rosy can hold the dust pan, put away folded clothes, put groceries into the fridge, feed the dog.
GODOY: And little kids are actually great at fetching things. Go fetch a washcloth. Go fetch some herbs from outside. Go fetch a clean diaper.
DOUCLEFF: Go throw away a dirty diaper.
GODOY: Go change the diaper – someday eventually, right?
DOUCLEFF: Yes. Eventually, yes. That’s the idea. As Rosy and Lily grow older and become more competent, the subtasks we give them can become more complex. Their contributions to our family grow as their skills grow.
GODOY: So instead of just cracking the eggs, now I’m letting Lily scramble them in a pan – that sort of thing.
DOUCLEFF: Yeah. Instead of just feeding the dog, Rosy now takes the dog for a walk.
GODOY: By practicing small tasks over time, kids build up their competency and confidence in bigger tasks. You know, this takeaway is so important, I’m actually going to repeat it. Request the kids’ help and give them small subtasks of your own chores and work.
DOUCLEFF: Now, to get the most from these subtasks, there are a few rules. Make sure the task is real. No busy work. So, for example, don’t give kids fake food or fake kitchen equipment.
GODOY: Like, don’t wipe down the table and then hand the kid the cloth and say, oh, wipe it for Mommy. If they cut up vegetables for dinner, use them. You might trim the ends, but accept their contribution.
DOUCLEFF: And don’t go overboard with requests. Two or three per hour is more than enough.
GODOY: For me, too. I also remember you talking about focusing on doing chores together on tasks that, you know, help the whole family, not individual tasks. For example, if you’re doing laundry, everyone folds everyone else’s clothes. Or if you’re making beds, everyone helps with everyone else’s beds. And everyone cleans up the dinner table.
DOUCLEFF: Yes. Rebeca Mejia-Arauz says then children learn to collaborate with their family, and they associate chores with being together.
MEJIA-ARAUZ: They enjoy being with other people. And so because they are doing the things together, it becomes something that is really nice.
DOUCLEFF: So it’s really the, like, togetherness that’s key.
MEJIA-ARAUZ: Yes. That’s very important, yes. Whereas in the other cases, they have to do them, the things, alone. Go and do your homework, pick up your things, and they have to do it alone. I think that makes a huge difference.
DOUCLEFF: Then the chore almost feels like a punishment.
GODOY: It’s almost like a timeout.
DOUCLEFF: And the child can end up connecting the chore to something negative. Lucia Alcala says when the child works together with the family to accomplish real tasks, they feel that they are real contributors to the family, that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Alcala says this motivates children to continue helping.
ALCALA: They help at home because they’re part of the family. It’s a shared responsibility. You know, we’re all in this together.
DOUCLEFF: Kids even as young as age 8 or 9 are aware of this motivation. In a recent study, Alcala asked Maya kids, why do you help at home?
ALCALA: They took a few seconds to think about it. And some – one of the participants, he said, well, I live there, therefore I should help (laughter). And he thought it was the most weird question. Why are you asking? Another boy said, you know, well, I also eat there. So it’s not the parents that are telling them or forcing them. And, in fact, the parents said, you know, you can’t force them to do something.
GODOY: Which brings us to the last takeaway. If the child refuses a request or doesn’t want to help, don’t force them.
DOUCLEFF: Yes. You know, Alcala says that when she presents her research at conferences, a common response is, well, the kids have to work because the families have limited resources. But she says that’s not what’s going on here because the parents aren’t forcing the children to help. Maya moms told Alcala, you can ask a child once or twice to help, and…
ALCALA: You can guide them. You can help them see why this is important for them to do and to learn. But you can’t impose learning. You can’t impose them to help if they don’t want to help.
DOUCLEFF: Actually, Maria, maybe we should take a step back here and look at the bigger picture. This isn’t just about having clean dishes or even teaching kids how to do chores. Alcala says with this approach, parents are teaching kids something that goes way beyond that. They’re also teaching them to be cooperative and help voluntarily. And if you think about it, to do that, you need to pay attention, know when to help and to take initiative.
ALCALA: What they want the child to develop is the initiative to understand when somebody is in need of help, to be attentive, to be alert to what’s happening.
GODOY: So forcing could backfire. It could actually erode the child’s motivation to cooperate with you and to help voluntarily.
DOUCLEFF: She says it pits the child against the parent.
ALCALA: And that could create conflict. And you don’t want to have conflict within the family ’cause that could break the cohesion of the family, right? So you don’t want to have your children as your enemy, which is very different ’cause we see middle-class parents also in Mexico and in other communities that are not enemies, but they’re against each other.
DOUCLEFF: Because remember, we are not teaching children to be obedient. We are teaching them to cooperate and work as a team, to look around and see what needs to be done and then care enough about it to do it.
GODOY: That’s the dream. So be patient. That’s a lifelong skill, just like reading or learning math. You can’t just hang up a chart on the refrigerator and expect the kid to start washing the dishes on Tuesday or Friday.
DOUCLEFF: As Maria Tun Burgos says, the process takes time.
TUN BURGOS: (Through interpreter) You have to teach them slowly, little by little. And eventually, they will understand.
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GODOY: So ready to start showing kids how to be helpful? Remember these four things. In every culture, all young kids, from toddlers until about age 6, they want to help people who love them. They just don’t know the best way. What you do in response to a child’s desire to help will likely determine whether or not that kid still wants to help with chores when they grow older.
DOUCLEFF: If a child comes over to help you and you shoo them off, you can erode their interest in chores and even in cooperating. So instead, welcome an eager child’s help. Step back and give them a chance, even if they aren’t competent in the task.
GODOY: Don’t wait for a child to show interest in a task. Request their help when you need it. Give them small subtasks of your chores. Just be sure the tasks are real contributions, not busy work.
DOUCLEFF: Finally, if a child doesn’t want to help, don’t force them. The goal is to teach children to cooperate and work together.
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DOUCLEFF: For more LIFE KIT, check out other episodes. I love Maria’s episode where she gives us wonderful ways to feel good about our bodies. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
And now, a completely random tip.
MAYA: Hey, LIFE KIT listeners. My name is Maya (ph). Do you ever run out of clothes at the end of the week but only have three small loads of different colors? You should invest in a laundry sorter with three different sections – one for bright colors, one for dark colors and one for light colors. Then choose one shade of colors to wear for the week. That way you’ll only have one big load of laundry, and you’ll be more environmentally and budget friendly. Then you choose a different shade the next week. Happy washing.
GODOY: If you’ve got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at [email protected]
This episode was produced by Jane Greenhalgh and edited by Vikki Valentine. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I’m Maria Godoy.
DOUCLEFF: And I’m Michaeleen Doucleff. Thanks for listening.
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