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Did you know in other cultures it's totally acceptable for young kids to help out with house chores? Author of Hunt, Gather, Parent, Michaeleen Doucleff shares tips on how American parents can get their children to help out and even be enthusiastic about the chores too.

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An image of a young boy doing laundry.
Credit: Getty Images.

When it comes to requesting help around the house, Western culture has it backward. We tend to view toddlers and young children as being exempt from chores and pitching in. We often think they're incapable of really helping.

Yet in many cultures around the world, from foragers in Tanzania to farmers in the Yucatan, moms and dads take the opposite approach: as soon as a child starts to walk, parents begin requesting their help with tiny subtasks. Over time, the child learns what needs to be done around the house.

By the time the child is a preteen, adults no longer need to make many requests because the child already knows what's required. In fact, asking preteens to help out would almost be disrespectful. It would imply that they hadn't matured or learned. It would imply that they were childish.

Another way to put that: Older children have already learned acomedido, or the skill of paying attention to others and helping when they need it. So it's not just doing a chore or task because someone told you to, but rather looking around and seeing what needs to be done and then acting.

So how do you start to teach children acomedido? It's actually not as hard as you might think. For young children (from ages 1 to about 6), the goal is to fan the flames of a child's enthusiasm to help, not extinguish them. Here's how to do that:

Show

Just like with babies, make sure that young children have regular and predictable access to everyday chores. Avoid shooing them off to another room or outside to play. Instead, invite them to come over and be close to you while you work, so that they can learn by watching and occasionally pitching in. "Many moms will say something like, 'Come, my child. Help me while I wash the dishes,'" says psychologist Rebeca Mejía-Arauz at ITESO University in Guadalajara, referring to her and her colleagues' study with Nahua-heritage moms. "The invitation is always for together, for doing the chore together."

Encourage

If a child asks to help, let them! If the task is simple, step back and let them have a shot at it. Don't start instructing; for small children, words are lectures—and confusing ones at that. Watch what the child does and try to build off their effort. If they start to make a big mess or big mistakes, gently guide them back into being productive. For example, in one study with Maya families in Chiapas, a 2-year-old toddler wants to help his grandma shell beans, but he's clumsy about it. The boy grabs a handful of whole beans and throws them in the trash. So his grandma corrects him and shows him the right way. She takes the beans out of the child's hand, before he can throw them away, and tells him that whole beans aren't to be thrown away. When the toddler, Beto, ignores her, she repeats the guidance. If a task is too advanced—or too dangerous—for their skill level, relax.

Stay Calm

No need to scare them. Tell the child to watch while you do the task. For example, one Maya mom, while frying tortillas, tells her toddler, "Watch so you can learn." Or find some way that a toddler can participate that's safe. For example, my daughter, Rosy, holds the plate for me while I take chicken off the grill, or she adds salt and oil to a pot of pasta. "Depending on the activity, sometimes children observe and other times they help," says psychologist Lucia Alcalá at California State University, Fullerton, referring to her recent study with Maya families. "Each mom knows whether a child can do a task or not." (And how do they know that? Guess what the mom has been doing while the child helps. Yup, watching. Watching. Watching. Are you detecting a theme here?)

Request Help

"A barely mobile toddler may be asked to carry a cup from its mother across an evening family circle to its father," writes David Lancy in The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. In the vast majority of cultures around the world (perhaps in all cultures, except a few weird exceptions), parents will ask toddlers and young children to help them with a variety of tasks throughout the day. David calls this the "chore curriculum," but maybe in Western culture we should call it the "cooperation curriculum," because these tasks teach children to work together with their family.

Here are a few tasks to try:

Go fetch

Young children are great task rabbits. They can go fetch an item from the car, garage, or yard. "Go upstairs to get toilet paper." "Go to the other room to grab a pillow." "Go outside to pick some mint." Even simply walking across the room to get your shoes is a great task for a toddler. Go, go, go. Young kids love to go. Harness that energy while also teaching them to pay attention to the needs of others. 

Hold this

Holding objects while you work is another great job for kids—of all ages. Not only does it encourage them to stick around so they can learn by watching, it also frees up your hands. Here are some examples (notice the pronoun usage; it's all about doing a task together):

  • "Hold the light while we try to fix the stove."
  • "Hold the plate while we take the pancakes out of the pan."
  • "Hold the door while we take the garbage out."

Stir this

Young children are great sous-chefs. They can:

  • Stir sauces, cake mixes, and dressings.
  • Crack eggs.
  • Marinate meat and fish.
  • Tear herbs.
  • Pound paste with a mortar and pestle.
  • Start cutting or peeling vegetables.

Carry this

Carrying can be a family endeavor. If your hands are full, then your children's hands can be full, too. After the grocery store, pack a small backpack or shoulder bag for children to carry to the car or into the house. Then work together to put the groceries away. With this activity, children will learn to organize the groceries in the kitchen and plan meals together with the family. While traveling, use a small suitcase so children can carry—and pack—their belongings. In our household, everybody carries something when we travel, shop, or go to school.

Tasks that give love

Young children love being "the mama," "the dada," or the "big brother or sister." Start training them to be kind to siblings by having them grab clean diapers, throw away dirty ones, pick up the baby's toys, entertain and feed the baby, and even work with you to prepare food and bottles. If the baby is crying, pause to see if the toddler or older child will help before you jump and pick up the baby.

Finally...clean, clean, clean

Young children are the consummate cleaners. They can rinse dishes, pour soap into the dishwasher or washing machine, wipe tables, vacuum...you name it, toddlers will clean it. Whatever they lack in thoroughness, they make up for in interest and zest. It might not be super clean afterward, but they will try very hard to make it that way. Don't interfere with their actions. Give them the tools and let them go wild cleaning. In general, any small task is great for young children. Again, see what the child shows interest in and welcome their help there.

Excerpted from Hunt, Gather, Parent, by Michaeleen Doucleff. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Editor's note: Some critics of the book have said it "underemphasizes the fact that Indigenous cultures evolve" (the New York Times) and that it "frames tribal parents as eternally happy, and Western parents, who in truth possess every material advantage, as miserable victims of circumstance." (Slate) But in her book, the author acknowledges the difficulties of life in other cultures and says it is "categorically wrong" to "romanticize other cultures, believing they contain some 'ancient magic' or live in some 'paradise lost.'" She says her goal is to "lift you as a parent, while also giving you a whole new set of tools and advice."

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