I want my kids to grow up to be helpful. I say this all the time because it is my top priority as a parent.
Helpful around the house, helpful around their peers, helpful to those who need it, helpful to their community.
I want to foster this idea without
diminishing them (i.e. “Look at __________, they are so much more helpful than you”), or
guilting them (i.e. “Don’t complain about _________, some people have nothing), or
shaming them, (i.e. “Look at how much better _________ is at that than you, what a good kid).
Instead, I want them to be helpful by fostering intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic, from within, to take initiative, to accomplish without threat of punishment or promise of reward. I want being helpful to be the end goal they work towards, not winding up with sugar or with extra playtime or with another unrelated prize.
What do I mean by helpful?
When I use this adjective with my five-year-old, it acts as the antonym of “hurtful,” “inconsiderate,” and “inefficient,” and “unproductive.” That means I use it to describe many more behaviors than you might usually associate it with.
—My kid crying through an assignment to get it done instead of taking a break to play is considered hurtful to herself. Taking a break to clear her head is “helpful.”
—Pushing a toy away from her little brother while he is reaching for it is inconsiderate, handing it to him instead is unproductive. Leaving him alone to learn to get it himself is “helpful.”
—Taking off her clothes at the door and running away is inconsiderate. Putting her shoes or clothes where they go is “helpful.”
Get the picture? I love using “helpful” and “unhelpful” as umbrella terms and digging into the nuance of them whenever we need to.
“Helpful” is a word I swap for “ intrinsically motivated.”
Here are five things you can do to encourage helpful, motivated behaviors from your own young humans:
When your kid asks a question, answer it! If you don’t know the answer, speculate with them. Don’t just let them be the ones asking “why,” ask them your own questions back.
Keeping a dialogue open with your kid on the most earnest and playful questions they have will lead to a willingness to tackle more difficult conversations later on.
Your kid feeling heard means your kid will let you know when they feel unheard or misunderstood.
Two-way communication isn’t important to every parent; it’s important to me, though, because I believe that saying, “because I said so,” as a response to a kid is insulting. It’s not helpful to only talk and not listen. Model that.
Let your kid make a mess and get messy. Another word for this: play. Keeping your kid curious keeps your kid asking questions, and as long as kids are asking questions and you are helping them discover answers, they are learning. As long as they are learning in a way that is through curiosity and play, the more they will want to know.
How can making a mess keep a kid motivated through a tricky math assignment? Bringing out toys to incorporate them into an assignment will simply make something difficult more fun to learn. Whenever I find my kid is groaning a lot and I am becoming frustrated, I will ask to take a break, and when we return they need to bring back some toys to either watch us work on the assignment, or to represent characters in word problems or represent literally anything that will make the work more like a game.
If you can help your kids problem-solve tough times into fun times, they will find creative solutions for other tasks.
Use “and” statements instead of “if/then” statements. This is tops if you don’t want to start feeling like you have to bribe or punish your kids. The best example I have here is regarding eating sweet things. I never say, “If you eat ______, then you can have ______.” I instead say something that sounds at first similar, but it has a totally different lesson: “We eat _______, and then we will eat _______.” I use this a lot during cleaning, too. For example, “We are going to fold all of these clothes, put them away, and then we are taking a break to read/play/dance party.”
Once you introduce the “if/then,” that means your kid will start questioning whether the “if” is worth the “then.” Maybe the “then” isn’t worth the “if.”
The “and” is inclusive of both actions, equating them rather than pitting one against the other for a kid to consider the value of.
Make sure you engage in the activities you want your kid to do, and make sure you engage your toddler in the activities you’ll want them to do well at later on. You can read this article about how to get chores done around the house—you should read it! Especially if you feel like you are doing too much and don’t know how to get help from your family members. The main point here is that when you participate in any task around your house, involving kids from the time they are babies leads to raising kids who don’t become miserly at the thought of helping out.
The main thing I want to add here is that it is TOTALLY FINE if you never handed your 12-month-old underpants and a sock basket to “sort” through.
If you have a 7-year-old who you’ve done everything for and you suddenly decide they should have a chore schedule, there is a really simple way to encourage chores be done: Start out by doing the chores with your kids.
Whatever age they are, no matter what your dynamic in your house looked like before, you making a change will lead to everyone else needing to adjust.
Say, “We all live in this house, we all help out in this house, and we will all help one another by _______.” You want your kid who has never done laundry to start doing laundry? You gotta do it with them. Say, “I am getting all of my clothes together, grab your laundry and we are going to get it done together.”
You want your kid to clean their room? Say, “I am cleaning up __________ while you are cleaning up your room. As soon as I am done, I will come ask what you need help with. If you finish first, come ask me what I need help with!”
The most important thing to remember here, though, is you MUST be helpful, too. You MUST show that you value an action by also engaging in that action. It is UNHELPFUL to demand your kids be helpful if you aren’t willing to participate, too.
Don’t assign a superficial value to household chores. Or anything else you think they need to be self-sufficient. Don’t pay your kids or bribe your kids to do anything unrelated to the task at hand. This is a short-term solution that leads to no lessons being learned. We all do this occasionally when our patience is running low, but it should never be a strategy we expect to foster a sense of initiative in our kids. Don’t pay your kids money to take care of the house you all live in. Don’t pay kids to help out with a house project. Don’t pay kids to clean their own space, don’t give them toys for using the bathroom, don’t bribe them to do anything that you believe is a baseline requirement for being a self-sufficient human.
This ties in directly with the use, “and” instead of “if/then” statements.
Want to give your kid an allowance without tying it to those baseline chores? Here’s what I say to my tiny kid at the end of the week when I give her money: “We all work hard, mom and I work hard at work, you work hard at school, and we all work hard to take care of our home, and to be helpful and we all get to share the money we work hard for.”
Trying any one of these things will help shift the dynamic in your home.
It’s a challenge to remember that change is incremental when a behavior you are seeing feels so overwhelming. Is there something specific you are trying to work on with your kid? My own big kid is five, and working on maintaining my code of boundaries with her is a grueling, daily task that I almost never feel up to. I have had four teenage siblings live with us, and having a teenager around is a great reminder of how similar we all are, across ages and across life experiences. We all want to feel heard, we all want to feel love, and we all want to feel like we can make a difference to someone else. We all want to be helpful, even though it doesn’t always look that way.
Any other suggestions for encouraging kids to stay motivated without sticks and carrots? Please share in the comments!