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Promote Helpfulness

May 20, 2010

"You're not the boss of me!" "It's mine!" "I don't want to clean up/use a fork/take a bath/go to bed…"

"Helpful" and "cooperative" are probably not the first words many parents would use to describe their young children. But surprising new research suggests that human beings are innately helpful. Psychologist Michael Tomasello, in his 2009 book Why We Cooperate, describes a study in which 18-month-old toddlers rush to the aid of an unfamiliar adult who can't open a door or pick up a dropped clothespin because her hands are full. But don't try this experiment at home just yet.

Many psychologists have argued that humans are innately selfish. It would seem like a contradiction—selfishness versus helpfulness—but in fact both impulses exist, side by side. From moment to moment, the urge that prevails depends in part on what children learn about helpfulness as they grow up. Biology may be a hard-wired blueprint, but it's up to parents to lay the foundation and utilize the building blocks that can shape caring and cooperative sons and daughters.

How can you nurture your child's natural helpfulness?

  • Model cooperation and helpfulness in your own life. Let your kids see you doing favors for others, like delivering chicken soup to a sick co-worker, helping out at their school, or holding a door for a stranger loaded down with packages.
  • Explain to your children how helpful behaviors (as well as selfish behaviors) affect others (e.g., "When you share your toys with your sister, she feels happy and will want to share her toys with you," or "When you tell your cousin he can't come to your birthday party, he feels sad and left out.")
  • Point out the benefits of cooperation (e.g., "Cleaning up the blocks goes much faster when we do it together. Now we'll have time to play a game before dinner.")
  • Set up joint tasks and offer incentives or rewards for working together (e.g., "If you and your sister play quietly while Mom is napping, we'll rent a movie tonight" or "When the two of you finish shoveling the driveway, come inside for a special treat").
  • Create opportunities for your children to help out around the house (e.g., clearing the plates after a meal, or reading a bedtime story to a younger sibling).
  • Acknowledge your children's helpfulness and praise them for it, especially in the presence of others.