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ParentWise: Will My Child Ever Help Out? 

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 12/2/2020 4:48:11 PM

At this time of year and especially in this COVID-laden year, you get stressed and when you get stressed, your kids do too. When stress hits a young child, it shows up in behavior that probably causes you more stress. Then your expectations rise, often out of proportion to what is appropriate for your child.

Many power struggles are fought over attempts to get kids to do what you expect in the name of learning to take responsibility. Too often your best intentions get derailed, and instead of teaching your children to help out and be responsible, you end up teaching them they are disappointments.

“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 seem to parent by a myth about what teaching responsibility means – usually stemming from what we got yelled at for – and we plow ahead quite unconsciously. You may fear that any exception to the rule will lead to anarchy. But what is the real lesson learned when you 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 trap. 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? 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.” When you hear a demand like, “Get me milk now,” instead of yelling about what an ungrateful child you have, try with lightness, “Please mommy may I have some milk?” Wait for the mimicked response and then, “Thank you” when you give it again waiting for the “Thank you.” 

You can do the same with behaviors you wish to see. In this way, you teach without holding unrealistic expectations that a young child should be cleaning up messes. Once there is calm modeling, then children can be brought into the process to help and eventually take over the task. With an older child you can say, “I’d like your help with….” (be specific) – then do it together and make it enjoyable. Put on music you both like.

Some mornings your perfectly capable child may need help getting dressed or getting out the door simply because she doesn’t want to go. There’s nothing wrong with giving the help to your child that you eventually 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 hide behind a skeptical wall of defense.

Taking a calmer, less forceful approach is not meant to let your children off the hook. Nothing is more important for developing self-esteem and competence than being relied on to help the family run smoothly. But your frustration and anger will work against your child’s growing competence.

Children naturally want to help – until we blame them for not helping. We have all had toddlers demanding to push the vacuum cleaner, sweep the floor, wash windows. You ease them more gracefully from that stage into helping when you don’t insist on them doing as you say every time.

Tips for 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 by getting something for you or putting something away.

■Some children are more resistant temperamentally to being told what to do. They will be harder to assign and expect chores to be done easily, but it doesn’t mean they don’t want to be helpful. Make lists, go over what you want and what they want to offer and make compromises and deals.

■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. Let him. But expect that he will get to it when you leave him to it and don’t nag.

■Model the behavior you want, use choices for time, ask if she needs help, acknowledge her 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. We all have them, especially these days. 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.

Be sure and check out Bonnie’s podcast Tell Me About Your Kids wherever you find podcasts. Each episode is a 1:1 session with a struggling parent.

Bonnie Harris, MS Ed, director of Connective Parenting, is a child behavior and parenting specialist. Her two books are When Your Kids Push Your Buttons and Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live (Toadstool and Amazon). Bonnie offers individual parent counseling, parenting workshops, professional trainings and speaking engagements internationally. Bonnie founded The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough where she teaches. To set up an in-person or online coaching session, email her at bh@bonnieharris.com. You can sign up for her email newsletter on her website bonnieharris.com.

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