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Encouraging Collaboration Early On Can Lead To More Helpful Children Later

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

During the pandemic, parents have really been struggling. Well, NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff says instead of thinking about how parents can help their kids, it's time for the kids to start helping their parents more.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Let's say you're scrambling eggs in the morning, and your 4-year-old runs over, steps up on a stool and grabs the spatula from your hand. What do you do? Lucia Alcala is a psychologist at Cal State Fullerton. She studies cross-cultural child development. What she sees is different reactions in different cultures.

LUCIA ALCALA: How we push them away or we, you know, encourage that, it's very different.

DOUCLEFF: In some cultures, mothers tell her...

ALCALA: I don't allow her to help me because I know she's not going to do a competent job and that's just going to create more work for me - so excluding them from helping because they're not competent yet.

DOUCLEFF: But Alcala's research demonstrates that excluding kids from tasks can have negative consequences. It can demotivate them or erode their desire to pitch in and be helpful. Alcala observed this effect in an experiment she set up in California.

ALCALA: We created a tabletop model grocery store.

DOUCLEFF: And brought it to 30 families' homes. The group was a mix of European-heritage and Mexican-heritage families. Then she asked pairs of siblings, ages 6 to 10, to plan a route through the store. And she told them...

ALCALA: To work together, to collaborate, help each other - very specific instructions. And we thought, you know, both groups were going to collaborate equally because it was so clear on the instructions.

DOUCLEFF: But with some siblings, that didn't happen. Some of the older siblings kept excluding the younger ones. In one instance, a little boy points to a grocery item, and his older brother pushes his hand out of the way.

ALCALA: And the brother completely ignored him. You know, he never acknowledges anything that he said.

DOUCLEFF: In some cases, the younger sibling tries for a while and then just gives up. They lose interest.

ALCALA: So in one case, the younger sibling just goes under the table and kind of gives up. In another case, he just goes away and, you know, doesn't want to continue because there's no room for him to be part of this.

DOUCLEFF: How much the kids collaborated fell along cultural lines. The Mexican-heritage kids collaborated about twice as much as the European-heritage kids. But the findings go beyond these two cultures. Research on child development worldwide suggests that including young kids in chores, even if the child makes a mess or slows things down, teaches them how to work together with their family as a team.

ALCALA: It's a shared endeavor. You know, we're all in this together.

DOUCLEFF: So how do you include a child into a task that they can't do yet? You tell them to watch or give the child a subtask of the chore you're already doing - a tiny subtask.

SHEINA LEW-LEVY: So things like bring me the machete or go fetch water - like, sometimes you just - the spoon is just out of reach and you're in the middle of cooking, and you'll just call at the kid who's the closest to you.

DOUCLEFF: That's psychologist Sheina Lew-Levy at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. In a recent study published in Ethos, she reported on Bayaka parents in the Congo basin. They request help from kids throughout the day - about three per hour - for just about every task.

LEW-LEVY: There's an involvement from every step of the way, from the smallest task all the way to the biggest task.

DOUCLEFF: Lew-Levy says these little tasks also teach kids when help is needed. So as they grow up, you don't even need to ask.

LEW-LEVY: The more you ask a child to cooperate, the more they start to preempt what's needed and then the less you need to be telling them what to do.

DOUCLEFF: In other words, ask a 4-year-old to hold the plate while you scramble eggs, and by the time they're 9, they'll make you the entire breakfast voluntarily.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.