Toddlers Want to Help and We Should Let Them

If allowed to help, toddlers become great work partners later in childhood.

By  Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn

Little toddler helping in kitchen with washing dishes

We, in the United States and many other Western nations, more often think of children as sources of extra work than as sources of help. We often think that trying to get our children to help us at home or elsewhere would be more effort than it would be worth.  We also tend to think that the only way to get children to help is to pressure them, through punishment or bribery, which, for good reasons, we may be loath to do. We ourselves generally think of work as something that people naturally don’t want to do, and we pass that view on to our children, who then pass it on to their children.

But researchers have found strong evidence that very young children innately want to help, and if allowed to do so will continue helping, voluntarily, through the rest of childhood and into adulthood.  Here is some of that evidence.

Evidence of Toddlers’ Instinct to Help

In a classic research study, conducted more than 35 years ago, Harriet Rheingold (1982) observed children, ages 18, 24, and 30 months, interacting with their parent (mother in some cases, father in others) as the parent went about doing routine housework, such as folding laundry, dusting, sweeping the floor, clearing dishes off the table, and putting away items scattered on the floor.  For the sake of the study, each parent was asked to work relatively slowly and allow their child to help if the child wanted, but not to ask the child to help or direct the child’s help through verbal instructions.  The result was that all of these young children—80 in all–voluntarily helped do the work. Most of them helped with more than half of the tasks that the parent undertook, and some even began tasks before the parent got to them. Moreover, in Rheingold’s words, “The children carried out their efforts with quick and energetic movement, excited vocal intonations, animated facial expressions, and with delight in the finished task.”

More recently, many other studies have confirmed this apparently universal desire of toddlers to help.  A common procedure is to bring the little child into the laboratory, allow him or her to play with toys in one part of the room, and then create a condition in which the experimenter needs help in another part of the room.  For example, the experimenter might “accidentally” drop something onto the floor, over a barrier, and try but fail to reach it. The child, who is on the other side of the barrier from the experimenter, can help by picking the object up and handing it over the barrier to the experimenter. The key question is: Does the child come over and help without being asked?  The answer is yes, in almost every case.  All the experimenter has to do is draw attention to the fact, through a grunt and attempts to reach, that she is trying to get the object.  Even infants as young as 14 months have been found regularly to help in these situations (Warneken & Tomasello, 2009).  They see what the experimenter is trying to do, infer what she needs, and then, on their own initiative, satisfy that need.

This helping behavior is not done for some expected reward. In fact, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello (2008) found that giving a reward for helping reduces subsequent helping.  In one experiment, they allowed 20-month-old children to help an experimenter in a variety of ways and either rewarded the child (with an opportunity to play with an attractive toy) or not.  Then they tested the children with more opportunities to help, where no reward was offered.  The result was that those who had been previously rewarded for helping were now much less likely to help than were those who had not been rewarded. Only 53% of the children in the previously rewarded condition helped, in this test, compare with 89% in the unrewarded condition.

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