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Learning boundaries and limits teaches children
what not to do. Learning to be helpful around the house involves learning what
is to be done or should be done. You can divide the learning task into two
areas: things needing done – like picking up toys, cleaning up messes, helping
to put things away, running small errands, and feeding pets; and ways not to
make work for others – like not making messes to begin with, not strewing toys
all over the house, or tracking in mud from outside, hanging up hats and coats,
and putting away clothes and toys.

Teaching your child about boundaries and limits
involves more than negative discipline. Praise and positive discipline have a
very significant role as well, and are especially useful in teaching your child
to be helpful around the house. Let’s go back to your child staying in bed
after being put down for a nap. Suppose there was initially a problem with your
toddler’s staying in bed and you have effectively dealt with the problem
through negative discipline. Your toddler has gone to bed, settled down, taken
a nap, and awakened happy. Now is the time for praise and positive discipline.
With obvious pleasure and enthusiasm, you let him know you think it was really
nice the way he settled down and took his nap. You may follow up by indicating
you are so pleased you are going to give him a special snack or take him for a
walk in the park. Just as the negative discipline encouraged the nap taking,
your praise and positive discipline reinforces the repetition of acceptable nap
taking. Likewise, if your adolescent gets good grades or comes home at the
expected hour, mention you appreciate his efforts and are very proud to have
such a thoughtful and responsible child.

Now let’s look specifically at getting your
toddler or preschooler to help around the house. Start by setting a good
example. If your room is not reasonably neat and orderly, it is a continuing
hassle to get your toddler or preschooler to keep her room neat and orderly. If
you model responsible and helpful behavior, keep your child’s environment
reasonably neat, and usually keep things straightened up, helping behavior from
your child likely starts spontaneously. Your toddler or preschooler begins to
ask to help, or starts helping when you are doing something, or occasionally
puts things away without being asked.

Your child’s efforts at helpfulness should not
be overlooked, even if they have not done a very good job, made more of a mess
than there was to begin with, or quit shortly after starting. Say, “I see
you have tried to straighten things up. That is very nice. Thank you.”
Don’t undo your compliment by going on to say “Let me help you a little
and we can make it really nice.” Your child thought it was really nice to
begin with. To instill a sense of helpfulness in your child has little to do
with how well she does, and more with her wanting to help.

Sometimes, your child asks if she can help. When
it is really necessary to get things done in a hurry or very neatly, then it is
much easier to say “No,” and to complete the task yourself. An occasional “No,”
does not hurt anything. If the answer is usually “No,” though, your child fairly
quickly gets the message you do not want her help. By directly or indirectly
criticizing your child’s efforts, or by not allowing her to help when she wants
to, you can easily turn off just what you want to encourage.

Once you have picked up on the spontaneous
development of a helpful attitude, the next step is to involve your child in
joint activities. You want the blocks, coloring books, and crayons picked up
off the floor. You ask your child, “Come help me pick these things
up.” Be friendly but firm. If he does not come over to help, say, “I
asked you to come help me.” Be firm and more insistent. If he still does
not come, go over and pick him up, bring him over to where the blocks and
crayons are, and say, “Now I expect you to help me.” If he still does
not help, there is no reasonable way you can make him do it. Nor is it
necessary. It is enough to bring him over to where the blocks and crayons are
and to insist he stay there until the task is completed. Once the task is
completed, and if he has not helped, you may want to make him sit on a chair,
go to his room, or experience some other negative consequence of not helping.
In general, however, asking your child to help usually works. When it does,
friendly praise is in order.

Once you have learned to usually accept your
child’s spontaneous offers or efforts to help and to frequently ask for help,
and have gotten past any problems of his refusing to cooperate or participate,
it is time to ask if you can help him. Let’s look at the same example. Your
child’s crayons, coloring books, and blocks are on the floor and need to be
picked up. You say, “Your blocks and things need put away. Let me help
you.” You and your child start to put things away. If this cooperative
effort continues, all is well and you say something like, “It is nice you
pick up your things and put them away. I really appreciate that.” If you
notice your child has stopped helping and is just watching, then say, “I
am not doing this by myself. I am helping you. If you do not want to do this
together, I am stopping and you have to put them all away by yourself. Now get
busy and do your share.” If he does not begin helping again, handle it as
if he had refused to begin with. If the process falters at any point, a little
negative discipline may be in order. Throughout, continuing praise and positive
discipline are essential. You know you are beginning to succeed the first time your
child gets his toys out, plays with them, and then puts them away without being

The attitude and habit of helpfulness should be
fairly well established by adolescence. If hassles continue with older
children, first remind them to help. After this has happened two or three
times, firmly insist they be more helpful.

Let’s suppose, for example, your grade schooler
or adolescent is not keeping his room straightened up or not cleaning after
fixing a snack. Say,”I’m getting very unhappy about your messy room and
about the messes you are leaving in the kitchen.” Even stronger is to tell
him, “I’m getting fed up with your messy room and with the messes in the
kitchen and am not tolerating them anymore.” If his behavior is not more
helpful, it is time to use negative discipline. In this example, you might
establish the rule his room be cleaned at least every other day during the week
or he cannot go out on Friday or Saturday nights. You might want to tell the
grade schooler, unless messes are cleaned up after snacks, she is not allowed
to fix snacks on her own for a week. It is very important these are not idle
threats. You must mean what you say.

Children’s helping around the house may not, by
itself, seem to be an important issue. The attitudes and behavior patterns
involved in this helpfulness, though, have a lot to do with how they get along
as they grow older – with co-workers, neighbors, and so on. All children,
especially adolescents, have their jobs around the house. They should develop
the attitude if they are to share in the rights and resources of the household,
they should also share in the work and responsibilities.

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