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How To Develop a Helpful Child

Bonnie Harris

Responsibilities & Values

Many power struggles are fought over attempts to get our children to do what we expect in the name of learning to be helpful and take responsibility. Too often our best intentions get derailed. Instead of teaching helpfulness and responsibility, we teach them they are disappointments to us.

“When will you ever learn to pick up after yourself?”

“How many times have I told you to hang your coat up?”

“Pick up those dirty clothes right now. I am not your servant you know!”

“Do you ever think about anybody but yourself?”

We get an idea in our heads about what teaching responsibility means—usually stemming from what we got yelled at for— and we plow ahead quite unconsciously. We fear that any exception to the rule will lead to anarchy. But what is the real lesson learned when we hold rigid to a vague principle?

Instead of threatening a time-out unless your four-year-old picks up her toys or your eight-year-old cleans his room, consider the agendas. Yours is to have a clean house: no toys to step on, dust bunnies to collect, mice to gather. Your child’s is to play and have fun as much as possible. If your child doesn’t do what you ask, you might assume disrespect, disobedience, or ingratitude when all she is doing is trying to get what she wants. That is her job after all.

Ultimately you want your child to become self-sufficient, take care of her own responsibilities, and respect others. Is this best enforced with power struggles that actually teach her that she is making you mad, that you disapprove of her, and don’t accept her the way she is? Of course that is not your intention, but that is the message of power struggles.

Instead, try modeling what you want to see in your child. If you want a clean room and you are getting resistance, pick up the toys yourself (your agenda after all) and say lightly without sarcasm, “Thank you mommy for picking up my toys.” “Mommy I appreciate you doing my laundry.” In the manner we teach please and thank you when we hear the demand, “Get me some milk”, responding with “…Please mommy may I have some milk?” and, “Thank you” when we give it. We can do the same with behaviors we wish to see from our children. In this way, we are teaching without holding the unrealistic expectation that a young child should be cleaning up messes as we make the orders. Once there is calm modeling going on, then children can be brought into the process to help and eventually take over the task.

Some mornings your perfectly capable child may need help getting dressed or getting out the door. There’s nothing wrong with giving the help to your child that you want to see her give to you.

When children are forced to do what we insist on and feel blamed or threatened when they resist, they get defensive to try to protect themselves from getting in trouble. Defensive behaviors such as yelling back, ignoring, hitting, even laughing are viewed as disrespectful and disobedient when in fact they are protective mechanisms. When we ease them into the process of helping, they are freer to watch, listen and learn with no need to build a wall of defense.

Taking a calmer, less forceful approach is not meant to be an excuse for letting children off the hook from jobs and responsibilities. Nothing is more important for the developing self-esteem and competence than being relied on to help the family run smoothly.

Children naturally want to help—until we blame them for not helping. We have all had toddlers who want to push the vacuum cleaner and scream if you take it from them. You ease them more gracefully from that stage into helping when you don’t insist on them doing as you say every time.

Here are some tips on developing a helpful attitude in your children:

  • Let very young children who want to help know they are helping, not hindering, and show appreciation.
  • Ask young children for small favors getting something for you or putting something away.
  • Understand that some children are more resistant temperamentally to being told what to do than others. They will be harder to assign chores but it doesn’t mean they don’t want to be helpful.
  • As your child gets older, don’t drop the ball on expecting him to help or have regular chores simply because he makes a scene when asked to do anything.
  • Model the behavior you want, use choices for time, ask if he needs help, acknowledge his agenda, and ask when you can expect the job to be done.
  • Be helpful to your child when a bad mood means it’s harder to do what you want. Don’t expect peak capability all the time.
  • Offer new jobs to choose from when you see boredom and resistance.
  • Don’t use rewards such as food, points or allowance for normally expected jobs. Your child’s reward is knowing he is counted on to be a contributing member of the family.
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Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at or follow her on Facebook