Learning boundaries and limits teaches children what not to do. Learning to be helpful around the house involves learning what is to be done or should be done. You can divide the learning task into two areas: things needing done – like picking up toys, cleaning up messes, helping to put things away, running small errands, and feeding pets; and ways not to make work for others – like not making messes to begin with, not strewing toys all over the house, or tracking in mud from outside, hanging up hats and coats, and putting away clothes and toys.
Teaching your child about boundaries and limits involves more than negative discipline. Praise and positive discipline have a very significant role as well, and are especially useful in teaching your child to be helpful around the house. Let’s go back to your child staying in bed after being put down for a nap. Suppose there was initially a problem with your toddler’s staying in bed and you have effectively dealt with the problem through negative discipline. Your toddler has gone to bed, settled down, taken a nap, and awakened happy. Now is the time for praise and positive discipline. With obvious pleasure and enthusiasm, you let him know you think it was really nice the way he settled down and took his nap. You may follow up by indicating you are so pleased you are going to give him a special snack or take him for a walk in the park. Just as the negative discipline encouraged the nap taking, your praise and positive discipline reinforces the repetition of acceptable nap taking. Likewise, if your adolescent gets good grades or comes home at the expected hour, mention you appreciate his efforts and are very proud to have such a thoughtful and responsible child.
Now let’s look specifically at getting your toddler or preschooler to help around the house. Start by setting a good example. If your room is not reasonably neat and orderly, it is a continuing hassle to get your toddler or preschooler to keep her room neat and orderly. If you model responsible and helpful behavior, keep your child’s environment reasonably neat, and usually keep things straightened up, helping behavior from your child likely starts spontaneously. Your toddler or preschooler begins to ask to help, or starts helping when you are doing something, or occasionally puts things away without being asked.
Your child’s efforts at helpfulness should not be overlooked, even if they have not done a very good job, made more of a mess than there was to begin with, or quit shortly after starting. Say, “I see you have tried to straighten things up. That is very nice. Thank you.” Don’t undo your compliment by going on to say “Let me help you a little and we can make it really nice.” Your child thought it was really nice to begin with. To instill a sense of helpfulness in your child has little to do with how well she does, and more with her wanting to help.
Sometimes, your child asks if she can help. When it is really necessary to get things done in a hurry or very neatly, then it is much easier to say No, and to complete the task yourself. An occasional No, does not hurt anything. If the answer is usually No, though, your child fairly quickly gets the message you do not want her help. By directly or indirectly criticizing your child’s efforts, or by not allowing her to help when she wants to, you can easily turn off just what you want to encourage.
Once you have picked up on the spontaneous development of a helpful attitude, the next step is to involve your child in joint activities. You want the blocks, coloring books, and crayons picked up off the floor. You ask your child, “Come help me pick these things up.” Be friendly but firm. If he does not come over to help, say, “I asked you to come help me.” Be firm and more insistent. If he still does not come, go over and pick him up, bring him over to where the blocks and crayons are, and say, “Now I expect you to help me.” If he still does not help, there is no reasonable way you can make him do it. Nor is it necessary. It is enough to bring him over to where the blocks and crayons are and to insist he stay there until the task is completed. Once the task is completed, and if he has not helped, you may want to make him sit on a chair, go to his room, or experience some other negative consequence of not helping. In general, however, asking your child to help usually works. When it does, friendly praise is in order.
Once you have learned to usually accept your child’s spontaneous offers or efforts to help and to frequently ask for help, and have gotten past any problems of his refusing to cooperate or participate, it is time to ask if you can help him. Let’s look at the same example. Your child’s crayons, coloring books, and blocks are on the floor and need to be picked up. You say, “Your blocks and things need put away. Let me help you.” You and your child start to put things away. If this cooperative effort continues, all is well and you say something like, “It is nice you pick up your things and put them away. I really appreciate that.” If you notice your child has stopped helping and is just watching, then say, “I am not doing this by myself. I am helping you. If you do not want to do this together, I am stopping and you have to put them all away by yourself. Now get busy and do your share.” If he does not begin helping again, handle it as if he had refused to begin with. If the process falters at any point, a little negative discipline may be in order. Throughout, continuing praise and positive discipline are essential. You know you are beginning to succeed the first time your child gets his toys out, plays with them, and then puts them away without being asked.
The attitude and habit of helpfulness should be fairly well established by adolescence. If hassles continue with older children, first remind them to help. After this has happened two or three times, firmly insist they be more helpful.
Let’s suppose, for example, your grade schooler or adolescent is not keeping his room straightened up or not cleaning after fixing a snack. Say,”I’m getting very unhappy about your messy room and about the messes you are leaving in the kitchen.” Even stronger is to tell him, “I’m getting fed up with your messy room and with the messes in the kitchen and am not tolerating them anymore.” If his behavior is not more helpful, it is time to use negative discipline. In this example, you might establish the rule his room be cleaned at least every other day during the week or he cannot go out on Friday or Saturday nights. You might want to tell the grade schooler, unless messes are cleaned up after snacks, she is not allowed to fix snacks on her own for a week. It is very important these are not idle threats. You must mean what you say.
Children’s helping around the house may not, by itself, seem to be an important issue. The attitudes and behavior patterns involved in this helpfulness, though, have a lot to do with how they get along as they grow older – with co-workers, neighbors, and so on. All children, especially adolescents, have their jobs around the house. They should develop the attitude if they are to share in the rights and resources of the household, they should also share in the work and responsibilities.