Most advice to parents on teaching children social responsibility makes the mistake of assuming that being socially responsible is an unnatural act. It is a big mistake and easily fixed.
Many of these “how-to’s” have great suggestions like: “Choose age-appropriate tasks,” “Make the job a game,” and “Establish a routine,” but between the lines you can detect that the author thinks wanting to be a contributing member of your family is unnatural. The opening sentence of one particularly good list of tactics for getting kids to be make contributions to family life makes the strategic error of beginning with:
“A three or four year old isn’t developmentally ready to focus on the greater good or to understand his role in the family, let alone his role in society (he does know, however, that he’s the center of the universe!)”
How parents frame questions determines the results because children have highly sensitized reality-testors which pick up and analyze all the social information, most of which is non-verbal. If a child senses that “work” is a bad thing, for instance, they will resent and resist “tasks.”
In “Want Cooperative Children? Treat Them As If They Are” I report on research that shows that children have been researching their social milieu for thousands of hours by the time they are 18 months and, therefore, have a pretty good sense of what another person wants and, furthermore, have a natural desire to give that person what he wants.
Two-year-olds are definitely focused on the greater good (within their limited horizon). They are passionate about the social context in which they live, passionate to learn all they can about “how things work around here,” and to figure out where they belong in their social context (mostly family) and how they impact it. Their natural, default preference would be to make a difference that is appreciated. A great kindergarten teacher I know used to say: “I see every unused ability in my class as an incipient behavior problem.” Maybe, if you are witnessing a behavior problem, you are looking at an unused ability.
Don’t underestimate the work that a 3-year-old can do. They can learn how to make cupcakes, fold laundry, get the mail, set the table, rake leaves. Dozens of things. Marianne Dunlap of Prairie Flower Montessori School in Decatur can give you a list of about 200 examples for all ages.
But if you see your child as needing to find ways to participate as a full fledged member of the body politic, activities will become obvious. People don’t tend to love “chores,” but most people like to be on a mission for the people they love. A sign that you are doing something wrong is if you give extrinsic rewards for the work.
If the parental attitude is right, you are doing children a favor when you show them how to do something useful. Here’s an article with the right attitude: How Kids Benefit from Chores. It takes for granted that children want to help. What if parents say “Thank you” for contributions to the family, and children give that same “Thank you” to the parents, How’s that for a vision: everyone getting the same thank you?
“Hey, will you help me do the dishes? I’ll wash and you dry.” If the parent doesn’t get an enthusiastic response they are doing something wrong: perhaps timing, or tone of voice, or attitude.
In response to another article I wrote about children’s natural inclination to be socially responsible Mary Anderson, principal of a public Montessori school in Decatur commented:
“Now you’ve done it. You are giving away all my secrets. All humans have the need to feel important and a part of something bigger than themselves. Children especially feel this need deeply. No greater joy is there than when they are put to a useful task. We must allow people of all ages to show us their best selves and to do that we must let them help and serve others.”