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How to Raise Helpful Children

Many North American parents make their kids the centre of the family. That’s the wrong strategy, argues Hunt, Gather, Parent author Michaeleen Doucleff

child helping with chores

The pandemic has forced many of us to spend more time with our children than ever before. That proximity has prompted an epiphany: our children are not that helpful. In fact, on a world scale, North Americans are likely raising some of the least accommodating children out there. That’s just one of the discoveries made by author and NPR reporter Michaeleen Doucleff as she researched her recent bestseller, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans.

Doucleff believes the problem is caused by the dynamics that exist in many North American families—with kids at the epicentre. The arrangement, she says, harms a child’s ability to develop acomedido—the skill of paying attention and then acting in a helpful way.

To research her book, Doucleff spent time with families in a Maya village on the Yucatan Peninsula, with Inuit families in Nunavut and with Hadzabe families in Tanzania. One morning, while visiting a Maya family, Doucleff witnessed a 12-year-old who woke up, wandered into a kitchen and began washing the dishes—completely voluntarily. The mother was not surprised. “She’s 12, and she knows what needs to be done,” the woman explained. The highest-value part of Doucleff’s book are the strategies designed to develop similar behaviour in North American children. Following are some of Doucleff’s suggestions:

Stop entertaining your kids. In North America we often assume it’s the parents’ duty to occupy children’s time, to keep them busy in some way. “No other culture in the world believes this,” Doucleff says. “And this is definitely not the way children evolved.” That mindset actually is doing children a disservice. A lot of life is boring, and hard work. By constantly filling children’s time and organizing their schedules, Doucleff says, we’re robbing them of their chance to develop initiative and resourcefulness.

Stop planning your weekends around your kids. Child-centred activities harm a child’s ability to develop acomedido, argues Doucleff. Trips to kiddie museums, indoor play gyms or the zoo—things parents do only for their children, and never would do on their own—“erode a child’s motivation to help,” Doucleff says. “They teach a child to learn that they are special, that their role in the family is to do these special activities.”

Include children in the household chores. But start small. If you’re folding laundry, don’t give them an entire basket—instead, ask them to fold one shirt and put it away. Start with “very, very small tasks that they can do quickly,” Doucleff says. “And you just keep doing this over and over again. And before you know it, they will be cooking you breakfast.”

Make time. If you want your children to help, you have to give them the time to do so, says Doucleff. “If the child is never at home while you’re doing the chores, or if they’re always at some other activity or they’re watching TV, well then they’re never going to learn the skill.”

Don’t give up. It’s never too late to learn acomedido. “The earlier you do it, the easier it is, but by no means is it ever too late,” says Doucleff. In fact, Doucleff realized that both she and her husband had failed to employ acomedido in their relations with one another. Rather than taking initiative to clean the kitchen or do the vacuuming, the two of them relied on nagging. As part of the book-writing process, Doucleff made a concerted effort to develop the acomedido style of paying attention and then acting in a helpful way. The result was a completely new, and much more enjoyable, family dynamic that saw each family member pitch in to help others—including her 44-year-old husband.

To sum up, Doucleff believes that mothers, and parents overall, would do better if they stopped putting so much pressure on themselves to occupy their children. Once left alone and encouraged to be helpful around the house, children may naturally develop the desire to pitch in on household chores. “There’s all this research that shows, little toddlers who are 18 months old are incredibly helpful,” says Doucleff. “Evolutionary biologists think it’s one of the reasons why we have been so successful—that we are genuinely born helpful. That’s what brings us joy, and makes us feel good.”

Medcan provides a Child and Youth Assessment designed to empower children to eat better, move better and think better. Learn more.

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