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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:

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If you’re like most parents, you’re frustrated because your child just sits there while you clear the dishes, feed the dog, straighten up the family room, and make the beds. No matter how old or young your children are, they seem to feel entitled to a life of leisure while you do all the work. Why is this? What are you doing wrong? And, more importantly, how can you fix this situation?

How can you get your kids to pitch in and help?

Let’s start with the children themselves. The first big problem is that kids don’t see what needs to be done. Kids just 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. Children are naturally self-absorbed. If what we want is for children to see their opportunity to help without be asked, then we’ve got to train them in what to look for.

Second, helpfulness is a learned skill. Becoming aware of others’ needs and being helpful doesn’t just happen. Children need to be taught how to be helpful. But we often don’t do this. It takes time to teach someone how to make a bed and we don’t have any extra time. It’s messy to let our kids feed the dog or gather up the trash. It’s quicker and neater to just do it ourselves. But when we do it all, our kids don’t learn how to do things on their own.

And, third, we make excuses for our children. We think they’re too young. We think they need more free time. We think they should do their homework instead. When we make excuses, we send the message that housework is reserved only for people (us) who have nothing better to do. Or we send the message that our children are incompetent and cannot do housework well enough to suit us. Neither of these messages is true and neither enhances children’s development of responsibility.

Part of being an adult is being able to manage one’s own affairs, make decisions, and anticipate the needs of others. When children are allowed to do chores and are taught how to do them well, they learn important skills. They feel good about themselves. If your kids hate doing chores and can’t see when they could be helpful, then you’ve made doing chores and being helpful a negative experience. It’s time to turn that around.

Ask nicely. Say what you want your child to do, when you want her to do it, and make it a request, not an order. Say, “Before you watch any TV, can you please take the recycling out to the bin?” Make sure you have her attention before you start. Make sure you get a “yes” or even a “yeah, sure” when you finish. If you don’t, get her attention and ask her again.

Don’t micromanage. Making a bed isn’t all that difficult to do and, really, so long as it’s done, it doesn’t matter how well it’s done. So when you ask your child to make his bed, avoid giving him detailed instructions on how to do it. Just ask him to make the bed. If you think he makes the bed badly and if this matters today – maybe your mother is coming to visit – then say, “Grandma is coming over so try to make your bed really neatly this time, okay?” Make sure you get a “yes” or a “yeah, sure” and you’re done.

Say “thank you.” Look your child in the eye, smile warmly and just say it. Say “thanks for feeding the cat.” This is not the time to add, “but next time don’t leave a trail of cat food between the bag and his dish.” Don’t criticize, just say “thanks.” Tomorrow, ask your child to feed the cat and suggest that she try not to drop kibble on the floor or that she pick it up if she does. Another day, another attempt. Today, just be grateful it was done at all.

Children will do just about anything for your sincere thanks. Children love being helpful and important and they want you to be happy. So make helping out a happy experience. Give them the skills and tools for doing a task, ask them to do one, and then thank them when they’re done. This isn’t all that difficult. You can do this.

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 and to learn some task-related skills. What you are doing here is developing attitudes and character. It’s worth the time it takes you.

Make helping out a habit at your house. Make it a friendly, cooperative thing, not a controlling, ordering-people-around thing. Let your kids contribute and be recognized for it. They’ll be eager to do more.

© 2015, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at