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“I don’t want my child to do as she’s told. I want her to do things without being told!”  

So how do you get there? How do you get your child off the couch and into being helpful? Let’s talk about what you can do, starting today. But first, let’s find out why kids need to be taught to be helpful.

First, kids don’t see it.

Kids don’t notice that things are messy or that you need a hand opening the door or that the baby is fussing because he can’t reach a toy. Kids are naturally self-absorbed. They cruise along in their own little world and only notice a problem when it crashes into their happy mindset.

Second, helpfulness is a learned skill.

Becoming aware of others’ needs and being helpful doesn’t just happen. Children don’t just grow into it all on their own. They need to be taught how to recognize that others are having a problem and taught how to step in to help. This means that you have to teach this.

And, third, every child can become more helpful.

Everyone can learn to be self-reliant and more thoughtful. Don’t provide your child with the excuse that he’s too young or too unskilled.  And don’t convince yourself that letting your child help is too much work for you. She can do this. You can help her learn.

It’s important. Part of being an adult is being able to manage one’s own affairs, make decisions, and demonstrate sound social skills. These are key elements of becoming a helpful kid. They’re the first steps on the road to autonomy. Children’s desire for autonomy is our way in.

Competence, capability and contribution

Kids want autonomy. They want to be able to do things themselves and be admired for it. A feeling of independence comes about through feeling competent, capable and valued through their contribution. So your efforts to engage your children in helping out around the house will help teach them to be helpful.

Competency. That’s the feeling that “I did it. I did it by myself.” In order to feel this way, a child needs to have a task on his radar screen and to know what it takes to do it and when to know the job is done. The task has to have a defined beginning and – even more important – a defined end. So a task that contributes to a feeling of competence is getting all the toys off the floor before bedtime. “Keeping your room neat” is not so well defined and it has no clear endpoint.

Capability. This is the feeling that I am powerful, I have skills and abilities, and I have impressed even myself with my own success. To feel capable, the task a child is set has to stretch him. It has to be a challenge. It can’t be too easy. This is where we parents often get tripped up. We think that to get our kids to help out, we should assign them a task that’s no challenge. Instead, appeal to your child’s desire to feel capable of great things. This desire is satisfied by challenging tasks.

Contribution. Does this task matter? Does anyone care? This is why cleaning the garage is more fun than cleaning one’s own room. A clean garage matters to other people. A clean garage is a real source of pride and truly contributes to the happiness of the family. Kids love to feel like they’ve made a real contribution.

Now let’s talk about what you can do.

1. Think about your child. What does he like to do, what is he good at, what task would he think is challenging and grown up? Your child can be any age, and the task will obviously change with the age of the child.

2. Choose one task to start. It should be something that can be repeated at regular intervals. It should be something that provides obvious clues that it’s “time” to perform the task. It should have obvious indicators that the task has been completed and completed well. Its success should be within the control of the child. And it should operate on a fairly short timeframe, depending on the age of the child.


Regular intervals: Good choice – take the bins to the curb on trash pick-up day; less-good choice – change a burned-out light bulb.

Obvious trigger clues: Good choice – keep the dog’s dish filled with clean water; less-good choice – keep the house neat

Obvious completion indicators: Good choice – take clean dishes out of the dishwasher; less-good choice – pick up all the pine cones and sticks that fall on the lawn.

Within child control: Good choice –  find all the books to go back to the library;  less-good choice – Keep your sister out of trouble

Short timeframe: Good choice – water the grass every week; less-good choice – keep the grass watered all summer

3. Tell your child what you want her to do. Talk with your child about your need for her help. Reinforce the importance of the task and how grateful you’ll be to have it completed. Help her to imagine making you happy. Be sweet, be pleasant but be clear that doing the task is not optional.

Tell her what

Tell her when or by when

Tell her what the goal is

4. Let your child decide how he’ll do the task. In order to develop a sense of ownership and autonomy, it’s important that at least some of how the chore is done be under the child’s control. You may need to teach how you do things, just to give your kid an idea. But if he does it a different way, let him try that. Let this be his task.

5. Remind him to come to you if he needs help.  Ask him if he’d like your help the first time. Thank him for taking this on.

6. Step back and be quiet. Will your child do the task the way you would do it? No. Will she make mistakes the first time? Yes. But you must let her own the task and find out for herself how to do it and how to do it better.

7. Remind if necessary. Your child may not have thought you were serious, especially if nothing has been asked of him before or if in the past he’s been able to slip by without doing what he promised. You must follow through and make sure he starts the task within your agreed-on timeframe.

8. Thank, inquire and reassign. When the task is done, thank your child, no matter how poorly the result is. Then ask your child how the task went. Let the child say the job was not done very well if it wasn’t.  Let her own the task and own the outcome. If the job was not done to standard, and the child doesn’t seem to see this, suggest one improvement for next time. No matter how well or poorly the task was completed, reassign it for tomorrow or whenever the next reasonable time to do the task is.

You might be thinking right now that this sounds like a lot of work – for you. And, yes, initially it is. You might be thinking that this is all more bother than it’s worth. You’d rather do the jobs yourself….

And that’s been the problem all along, right? Because you haven’t committed before to teaching your children how to do jobs, they haven’t learned to do them. They may even believe you don’t really want them to do chores. You may have sent the message that don’t think they can do hard things.

Remember that the main reason for kids to do chores is not so much the chores themselves, those it’s nice to have some of those done. The main reason is to teach children responsibility and initiative, to guide children in working collaboratively, to develop feelings of altruism and working for something larger than themselves, and to learn specific task-related skills. This is why letting children decide when and how to do a task is important. This is why letting kids evaluate their own work makes sense. And this is why making certain that children own their tasks and are responsible for them is so key.

What you are doing here is developing attitudes and character. That’s why doing chores is important. That’s why you’ll want to start your children doing chores today.

Is it hard to get your preschooler to clean up his or her room? You know kids should help around the house, and his own room is a good place to start… but why is it so hard to get it done?  The truth is, for a young child, cleaning up a bedroom or playroom is actually a pretty complicated task.  Consider:

This challenge is made even harder by the fact that young children have a hard time completing a series of tasks, and certainly a series of undesirable tasks will be even harder still.  Also, have you ever sat down at your computer to look up something particular, and before you realize it, you’ve spent 10 minutes checking email or Facebook?  That’s what we’re asking kids to do… pick up every toy you’ve enjoyed lately but DON”T PLAY WITH THEM, even for a second!  Pretty challenging!

So what to do?  First off, change your goal.  Yes, a clean room is still ONE of the goals.  But consider that “teaching and reinforcing the lesson of HOW to clean a room” is an equally important goal.

Secondly, young children do better when expectations are clearly and concretely spelled out, and when they can receive instructions in bite-sized pieces.  They also do better when they have you nearby.  (Sure, we want our kids to be able to do the ‘right thing’ independently, but the preschool years are a bit early in this situation.)  So clean the room WITH them.  Your physical presence helps them stay focused, your bite-sized directions help them know what to do next, and your positive attitude makes the whole experience better.

Thirdly, consider playing music while you work, or singing, or dancing!  It helps with having that positive attitude (for both of you!) Turn the experience into together-time, and try to make it fun, or at least cooperative.  You’ll find that this can make a world of difference… and a clean room!

Two weeks with your grade-school children! How lovely! At least for a day or two. What then? Here are my favorite tips for keeping kids happy and out of your hair over winter break.

Have a daily schedule and write it down where everyone can see. Don’t worry if your children can’t read yet. Just knowing there’s a list of things that will happen each day gives the time some shape and some purpose. Kids feel less lost and more comfortable when they know there’s a plan

And having a plan makes it easier for you to regulate TV use, snack times, rest time, time for reading or homework and so on. So start your daily schedule with breakfast and work right on through the day until bedtime. Block off time for outdoor play – this could be a trip to the park, playing in the yard, or taking a walk around the neighborhood. Include time for reading or reading aloud. Include time for chores or errands. Whatever will happen during the day gets a spot on the schedule.

Make sure to also include some quiet time that is unscheduled. Boredom is good for kids – it opens their minds to new ideas and inspires creativity. So don’t think that keeping a schedule means you have to be the on-call entertainer. When children run out of things to do during time when “there’s nothing to do” dig out some old, forgotten toys, set them to making stuff, or check out my own list of 50 Things To Do Over Winter Break.

I like to use a large chalkboard for the schedule. I picked up one at Goodwill for a dollar or two – but you can use a big sheet of paper as well. The important thing is that the schedule is written fresh every day. You don’t want every day to be the same, and most days will be different from each other. In addition, kids want to be able to cross things off or erase them as they are accomplished. If you have more than one child in the household, they may need to take turns performing this exciting task!

Some other general thoughts that will preserve your sanity and help kids have a pleasant time:
• Children are responsible for keeping themselves busy, not a parent (you are not their social director).
• Being bored is not a waste of time, it’s the gateway to thinking new thoughts.
• Too much screen time is too much screen time. Make certain there’s a good balance of electronic and old-fashioned fun.
• Getting outside and running around is essential for mental health – yours! Even if it’s cold and wet, bundle up and get outdoors.
• You get what you notice so notice good stuff
• Ignore as much bad behavior as you can
• Aim for activities that make a child feel responsible, capable, and grown up

And have fun. If you are in a good mood, everyone else will be too.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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.”

“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 two-year-old picks up her toys or your four-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:

– See more at:

“I’d do anything, for you, dear, anything, for you mean everything to me….”

This is what Artful Dodger sings to little Nancy in the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! It also might be the tune you sing to your own child. We love our kids. Our love has no limit. But our pocketbooks do.

Even so, many parents go into debt over things their children want that don’t qualify as needs. Now is a good time to remind ourselves of the difference and to strengthen our resolve to know when to say “no.”

Understanding the distinction between wants and needs is not something kids are good at. A two-year-old needs a cookie before dinner. Just ask him! A nine-year-old needs a new package of Pokemon cards. A thirteen year old needs a cell phone with an unlimited data plan. These needs are strongly felt and kids can be very persuasive. Denying our children what they want and what they believe they need just feels wrong. It’s unpleasant. Many times it is just easier and quieter to give in.

But giving in gives the wrong impression. Even if we can afford everything our children wish for, it’s important to show some restraint. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Children must be able to evaluate their own impulses and develop some self-control. If not at home, with you, where will they learn this? The child who believes that everything has its price and everyone can be bought is not an asset to society.
  2. Making choices about what to buy or what to ask for is more important to a child’s development than being able to buy or receive everything imaginable. Evaluating, planning, and even saving, develop a child’s brain capacity for all sorts of decisions down the road.
  3. Being part of the family “team” is an important part of children’s self-concept, more than being the one the whole family revolves around. It’s a good thing for children to notice that others in the family have needs and wishes too and that sometimes others’ desires will come before their own. Not always, but sometimes.
  4. Giving children something while denying ourselves everything eventually leads to resentment, guilt, and anger. It’s unfair to the child, really, to let her get used to having her own way, only to tell her later that she’s too old for all that. It’s not going to be her fault that she’s spoiled but you might be inclined to blame her nonetheless.
  5. Instead of always supplying your child’s every want, give her an allowance so she can make her own spending and saving decisions. Doing this provides her with an appreciation of the value of things, helps her grow in responsibility and planning, and makes her feel independent and empowered.
  6. If your child wants something you approve that is way beyond his means, insist he contribute some portion of the price, even if it’s just a small amount, or contribute an “in kind” contribution of chores. Having some “skin in the game” helps him be a partner in the investment and feel grown up, instead being and feeling dependent on you.

This is not to say that we can never indulge our children’s desires or that everything we give our kids has to fulfill a true need. Buying our kids stuff that lights up their eyes is fun and makes us happy too.

But overdoing the gift-giving and encouraging children to create wish lists that are unreasonable do no one any favors. If you find yourself maxing your credit cards for children’s holidays, there’s something wrong in the equation. But it’s not really about the money. It’s about the values.

Value your children in incalculable ways.



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.

Here’s another reason why dads should help out with household chores: their daughters are more likely to be more ambitious and aspire to more success than girls raised in more traditional households.

A study conducted at the University of British Columbia followed 326 children aged seven to 12 and at least one of their parents. Researchers then calculated the division of household tasks and also parents’ involvement in the paid workforce. They also surveyed parents about gender and career attitudes and asked children what they want to be when they grow up.

They found several things. Not surprisingly, mothers were found to take on most of the household chores; this matches previous studies. Even those fathers who endorsed gender equality and had high expectations for their daughters actually tended to do very little around the house. And when that occurred, their daughters tended to aspire to more traditionally-female careers in teaching, nursing, library work, or child-rearing.

Only when fathers actively pitched in at home, at levels their daughters could notice, did girls aspire to careers in leadership roles, the sciences, or business. Lead researcher, Alyssa Croft notes that “’Talking the talk’ about equality is important, but our findings suggest that it is crucial that dads ‘walk the walk’ as well — because their daughters clearly are watching,”

Certainly only girls can grow up to be mothers and motherhood is a worthy goal. But parents owe it to their children – boys and girls both – to prepare them for a rich and varied life. This means that girls should feel empowered to aspire to career success and that boys should feel empowered to be a full partner in a household. Each child misses out on opportunities for life satisfaction when aspects of life are eliminated from consideration early.

Fathers were the focus of this study. What can both parents do?

  1. Fathers can take more responsibility for homemaking tasks like shopping for groceries, cooking, doing laundry, running the dishwasher, and straightening the family room. Who does these at your home? Why?
  2. Mothers can give up any perfectionist impulses that have caused them to horde household tasks. Letting fathers step up and do things means that fathers get to do things their way, without supervision from their wives or evaluation of how well they did. So long as life goes on, however household tasks are accomplished is good enough.
  3. Both parents can ensure that sons and daughters share in all the household chores, and not divide them up into gender-stereotypical roles. Girls can do yard work. Boys can fold clothes.
  4. Both parents can encourage their children to aspire to any career they like, without being steered into future roles that are ‘appropriate’ for their sex. All work is worthy work and the ability to do well in any field isn’t biologically determined. Keep an open mind.

Summer is a great time to notice the subtle messages you and your partner are sending to your children, about what is expected of them and what they can dream of becoming. As you choose fun things to do with your kids and as you assign them chores this summer, notice if their a gender bias to your choices.

Then notice too what the adults are doing. If work falls along traditional gender roles, maybe this summer is the time to shake things up.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Have you noticed how often you do things for your kids instead of letting them do things themselves?

If you have, then you’ve probably also noticed how often kids refuse to do things for themselves, instead whining and pouting until you do things for them.

How did it get this way? And how can you help your children do things for themselves?

It’s easy to see how things got this way: it’s just easier to do things ourselves. We’re neater, more careful, and more skilled. We’re quicker. And because everyone is so busy these days, and in such a hurry, getting things done quickly and with as little mess as possible matters.

So we sometimes feed children who could feed themselves. We dress our kids, zip their jackets, organize their homework, maybe even occasionally do their homework for them. We clean their rooms. We clean their faces.

So we shouldn’t be too surprised when now our kids won’t do things on their own.

We’ve inadvertently sent the message that we believe our children are incapable of doing things on their own. We’ve hinted by our actions that left on their own, our children will do everything wrong.  They are helpless or incompetent.  These are the messages we send when we do things for our children that they could do for themselves. We send the message that, really, we’d rather do things ourselves.

Of course, this isn’t sustainable. Sooner or later we feel like our kids’ servant, doing everything while they sit by and watch. Sooner or later our children will grow up and need to be able to do things on their own. Now is the time to let them practice.

Practice does make perfect.

To let kids practice means letting them try. Letting kids try means letting them make mistakes. We have to get comfortable with failure. Only when kids fail will they learn how to do things better.

Remember that very little that children do has long-term effects. Not making the team, not making an A, and not winning a ribbon in the science fair doesn’t doom a child’s future career. In fact, what does doom a child’s chances is relying on a parent to make everything perfect.

If you’ve been doing it all, now is the time to stop. By how can you do that if your children are used to doing very little?

  1. Quit doing. Smile sweetly the next time a request comes in for something a child could do herself and say, “I’m going to let you try.”
  2. Avoid making excuses. It’s not that you’re too busy or that you’ve got your hands full. It’s just that you want her to try. If you need to soften your refusal, say, “I’m sure you can do it well enough.”
  3. Don’t back down. Your child may cry and carry on. He may do this especially if he believes you only love him if things are perfect. Giving up on perfect is difficult for both of you. Continue to smile, continue to be supportive, but continue to refuse to do what he can do.
  4. Provide moral support. If you’ve been over-involved in your child’s homework, for instance, instead of completely withdrawing your help, sit near your child as she does the work on her own. You’re there, you’re being supportive, but you’re no longer actually doing the work.
  5. Congratulate your child for trying. Remember you’re not hoping for perfect. You just want your child to do the best he can. Just trying – sincerely trying – is a good step forward.

Letting go of perfect and embracing effort is not easy if this has been the pattern in your home in the past. You need to do this difficult thing just as your child needs to do difficult things too. But no matter how little or how old your child is, helping him do what he can do and helping him accept a solid effort even if the results aren’t perfect – these are accomplishments that build the future.

If your kids aren’t trying hard enough right now, could it be because of you? Now is the time to step back.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.