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Getting a child to do chores around the house without being told may seem an impossible dream for parents. But researchers have found several cultures around the world where children do chores around the house without being told. Imagine. As part of an NPR-wide series called (laughter) How To Raise A Human, NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports on how we can learn from this.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Back in 2005, Andrew Coppens was teaching elementary school in a rural area of Nicaragua. Families there ran a dairy farm. And before school one morning, Coppens visited the dairy and was shocked at what he saw.
ANDREW COPPENS: There were just tons of kids there.
DOUCLEFF: Were kids actually milking the cows?
COPPENS: Yeah, in some cases. And they were incredibly skillful at it.
DOUCLEFF: Quickly, Coppens realized that this happened every morning. The dairy was packed with kids - 9, 10, 11-year-olds - before school.
COPPENS: Every morning, they were waking up much earlier than I did and, you know, running to the farms to help out.
DOUCLEFF: But what really blew his mind was all this help was voluntary.
COPPENS: Nobody asked them to be there, and they weren't paid to be there. They could come and go as they pleased. Everybody had smiles on their face but not in a romanticized way. I mean, it was - if it was hot, kids were complaining, you know, but adults were complaining, too.
DOUCLEFF: Coppens decided to figure out what was going on. How did the families raise such helpful kids? He came back to the states and started a Ph.D. and teamed up with Barbara Rogoff, a psychologist at UC Santa Cruz who had been studying a similar phenomenon with Mexican kids. The kids weren't waking up early to milk cows, but instead, they volunteered to help around the house - help cook, do laundry, clean up.
BARBARA ROGOFF: So an example is Mom comes home from work, and she's really tired, and she just plops herself down on the couch. And the daughter, who I think is 8, says, Mom, you're really tired, but we need to clean up the house. How about I turn on the radio and I'll take care of the kitchen and you take care of the living room, and we'll have it all cleaned up?
DOUCLEFF: It sounds like this amazing dream for a lot of parents (laughter).
ROGOFF: Yeah, but it's something that the mothers really value, not for the work alone but for the children's development.
DOUCLEFF: Rogoff and Coppens have also found that when some of these families move to the U.S., they bring these values with them. Coppens started interviewing Mexican-American moms in Watsonville, Calif., and then compared their answers to those from white, middle-class families in Silicon Valley. A clear pattern emerged.
COPPENS: The Mexican-American kids at age 6 to 7 were doing about twice as much around the house as the middle-class European-American kids were doing, and they were doing so much, much more voluntarily.
DOUCLEFF: So what on Earth is their secret? How do they get 6, 7, 8-year-olds to be so helpful voluntarily? No gold stars, no promise of an allowance. OK. This is going to shock you, but the researchers say one thing is key.
DOUCLEFF: Toddlers - embracing the power of the 1-to-3-year-old set. If you look around the world, toddlers everywhere have two things in common - No 1.
DOUCLEFF: Yep, tantrums. Toddler tantrums are pretty much universal. That right there is my daughter, Rosemary. She's 2 1/2 and letting us know she isn't happy with oatmeal for breakfast.
What do you want to make for breakfast?
DOUCLEFF: But there's something else universal. I'll let Rosy explain.
OK, Rosemary, do you like to help around the house with chores?
DOUCLEFF: What do you like to help with?
DOUCLEFF: Making pancakes.
DOUCLEFF: Yeah. What else? Is there anything else you like to help?
DOUCLEFF: Wash the dishes.
All around the world, toddlers want to be helpful. They want to do chores.
REBECCA MEJIA-ARAUZ: They see - they look at what other people are doing, and they want to do it.
DOUCLEFF: That's Rebecca Mejia-Arauz. She's a collaborator on the research and a child psychologist at ITESO University in Guadalajara. She says this desire to help comes from toddlers' strong drive to be around their family, especially their moms.
MEJIA-ARAUZ: They enjoy being with other people.
DOUCLEFF: So they see their mom or big sis sweeping the floor, and they want to sweep, too. They may even rush over and grab the broom. Mejia-Arauz says in some cultures, this gusto desire to help is rebuffed because the toddlers aren't competent. They can't actually do the chore, and sometimes they make more work. Moms told Mejia-Arauz things like...
MEJIA-ARAUZ: I need to do this very quickly, and if they help, this is a mess, so I'd rather do it myself than having them helping.
DOUCLEFF: But Mexican-American moms in the study - they do the opposite. First, they give the toddlers the opportunity to watch the chores as often as possible. They say...
MEJIA-ARAUZ: Come, my child. Help me while I'll wash the dishes.
DOUCLEFF: And if the child wants to participate, maybe rinse a plate or something...
MEJIA-ARAUZ: They are welcome.
DOUCLEFF: Even if it means at the beginning things going more slowly or you having to redo it.
MEJIA-ARAUZ: Exactly, yeah. We have interviews with mothers in which they say, well, for example, doing the dishes, at the beginning, the water was all over the place and so and so. But I would allow him to do this so they learn.
DOUCLEFF: So the mom sees it as an investment. Encourage the messy, incompetent toddler who really wants to sweep or do the dishes, and over time, he or she will turn into the competent 7, 8-year-old who still wants to help. And Mejia-Arauz says if you give young kids a chance to help, you might be surprised at how fast they learn. One mom said her son could fry pork at age 2, and by age 9, he could butcher the whole pig.
Now, culture is complex. David Lancy, an anthropologist at Utah State University, says taking a parenting strategy from one culture and plopping it into another doesn't always work. But he says he does think people can learn a lot from the Mexican moms.
DAVID LANCY: Absolutely. Granted, it's difficult in our package, in our society. It's not a slam dunk.
DOUCLEFF: He says American parents have oodles of opportunities to get toddlers and young children involved with family activities.
LANCY: Cooking in the kitchen or gardening or construction, building a dog house - all those activities children will automatically volunteer to participate in.
DOUCLEFF: But parents have to rethink how they do these things.
LANCY: We have to make allowances. We have to slow down what we're doing. We have to make sure that there are appropriately child-sized tools available. It just doesn't happen automatically.
DOUCLEFF: And he says parents have to change their mindset about kids' intentions. Instead of assuming toddlers or young kids want to play or make a mess, assume they're there to help the family. They just need a little bit of help figuring out how to do that. Michaelaeen Doucleff, NPR News.
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