If you lined up 2 year olds from every country, whether from Hong Kong or from farms in Argentina, they have a few things in common, across their cultural differences: one is tantrums, and another is wanting to be helpful. It is a subtle trait, that we sometimes don’t pay attention to.
“Toddlers are very eager to be helpful,” says David Lancy, an anthropologist at Utah State University, who documented this universality in his new book, Anthropology Perspectives on Children as Helpers, Workers, Artisans, and Laborers.
I love that title! Anthropologists studying toddlers!
Psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello concluded in a study, that children have an inner motivation to be with us and offer to help— “And extrinsic rewards seem to undermine it.”
Rebeca Mejia-Arauz, a psychologist at ITESO University in Guadalajara, thinks it is the toddlers deep desire to be around their family. “I think this point is really key,” she says. “Doing things with other people makes them happy and is important for their emotional development. They see what their mom or siblings are doing, and they want to do it.”
It’s seems the hardest thing for us non-indigenous parents in the present moment to be patient and willing to let the two year old get the egg shell in the pancake mix and try again to get the missed dirt left on the floor after sweeping. Toddlers can be messy and maddening. We are efficient here, in America, and busy. So busy in fact, we are missing this wealth of help that is waiting to bud and blossom in our young children all because we can do it faster and better. Many times we just tell our children to go and play while we do the chores. We are missing the point of harnessing toddler power when they are willing and wanting to work with us. We end up doing all of the work and not helping our children on the path to self-reliance.
Mejia-Arauz continues, “But moms with indigenous heritage often do the exact opposite.’
“First, they give toddlers the opportunity to watch the chores as often as possible. “They invite them over by saying something like, ‘Come, my child, and help me while I wash the dishes,’ ” Mejia-Arauz says.
“Then if the child wants to participate, “they are welcome,” she says, even if it means going more slowly or if the mom has to redo the task.’
“For example, one mom told us: ‘When my toddler was doing the dishes, at the beginning, the water was all over the place, but I would allow my son to the dishes because that’s how he learned,’ ” she says.’
Why does the patience pay off?
“The moms see it as an investment, Mejia-Arauz says: Encourage the messy, incompetent toddler who really wants to do the dishes now, and over time, he’ll turn into the competent 7-year-old who still wants to help.”
“Research supports this hypothesis, says the University of New Hampshire’s Andrew Coppens. “Early opportunities to collaborate with parents likely sets off a developmental trajectory that leads to children voluntarily helping and pitching in at home,” he says.”
“Or another way to look at it is: If you tell a child enough times, “No, you’re not involved in this chore,” eventually they will believe you.”
Utah State University’s David Lancy, says,
” I think we are doing a disservice to toddlers and older children when we deny them the opportunity to pitch in and be helpful…We have to slow down what we’re doing. We have to make allowances.”
So how can we slice this indigenous parenting style into our own American lives?
We have to start early. As soon as we can:
1. Expose kids to chores as much as possible
“This exposure also helps young children to see that chores are a social activity, Coppens says. They’re opportunities to work together and be with family members — which young kids crave. Then kids associate chores with a fun, positive activity.”
2. Think small tasks, big contributions
“It can’t be a “fake” project or an action that has nothing to do with the real chore. Then everyone isn’t working together for a common goal.”
3. Always aim to work together
“So for example, if you’re doing laundry, be sure everyone is folding everyone’s clothes. If you have the children just fold their own clothes while you fold your own, the tasks becomes more about working independently.”
4. Don’t force it
“To do that, indigenous parents don’t force kids to help. They encourage the child and offer opportunities to participate when the child is interested.”
“Saying to a child: ‘let’s do this together’ sounds so much more interesting and rewarding than saying, ‘I want you to do this,’ ” she adds.”
5. Change your mindset about young children:
” If you make the assumption the toddler wants to help you, but he just doesn’t have a good understanding of how to do that — then you’ll try to find a way for him to help,” Coppens adds. “You will help him help.”
“Over time, the “help” will grow in complexity. And the 2-year-old who stirs the pancake mix today could turn into the 6-year-old who makes the whole family breakfast — and feels darn good about it.”
My own children grown, I have experimented with my grandchildren. Julia, who is 4, helped me wash windows one early morning when I would usually try to entertain her. She was talkative and so willing to help. The next morning, while her visiting parents slept in, she asked me what work we were going to do today. Dalton, age 8, another visiting child over the holidays, set the Thanksgiving table for us, and on another day he wanted to help me make breakfast and cracked all the eggs for me for the egg toast I was making.
Can we be patient enough to work slowly with our young children, knowing we are investing long term for our children to jump in to help without being asked?
Part 3: Rosy, The 30 lb. Troll