Toddlers are on a mission towards independence. If you ask people to describe a typical toddler, you will likely hear them use words like stubborn, messy, defiant, busy, and time consuming.
Our toddlers can be single-minded and appear completely self-focused as they work towards mastery of their bodies and immediate environment.
Toddlers are happy to engage in altruistic behavior
However, studies suggest that even before the age of 2, toddlers experience happiness when performing selfless acts. Toddlers do not need to be taught to be kind. In fact, many recent studies show that prosocial behavior (such as sharing, caring, and helping) is intrinsic and occurs even before kids are socialized and taught to appreciate the cultural value of kindness.
This kind of early childhood altruistic behavior displaying acts of kindness which may come at a personal cost and with no expectation of any extrinsic treat or reward is motivated by genuine concern and a desire to help.
As children get older, they learn more about expectations and behaviors by interacting with and observing others. By observing the physiological responses of children when help is required, researchers have established that even young toddlers have heightened feelings of sympathy and concern towards people in need. They experience a sense of relief when they can help resolve the problem and when they observe someone else doing the helping.
At this very young age, kids haven’t yet been exposed to cultural norms that dictate how they are expected to behave, and they don’t carry out acts of kindness to “get credit” for the act. Yet.
One study observed toddlers just under 24 months of age who were asked to share treats with a puppet who did not have any. The independent observers noted that the toddlers seemed happiest when sharing the portion of treats they had been given as opposed to sharing a “found” treat or later being asked to provide the puppet with their own treats.
A second study demonstrated how 19 month old toddlers naturally and without prompting, assisted someone who had dropped a food item out of their reach and was unsuccessfully reaching for the item. These toddlers repeatedly helped someone outside of their family without being asked or shown how to do so.
The second study also noted that toddlers with siblings and those from cultures that emphasized interdependence were especially likely to be helpful.
How do you encourage your toddler to be helpful?
As parents, we need to take note of this natural need of young children to be helpful. If we can encourage and cultivate the willing nature of our toddlers, they will continue being voluntarily helpful through childhood and into adulthood.
There are many ways in which we can encourage helpful behaviors in our kids:
1. Slow down
We often rush through tasks and chores to get them done as quickly as possible. In doing so, we may brush aside attempts of help from our toddlers and send the message that they are not capable of helping.
By slowing down and allowing toddlers to be a part of the process, we provide opportunities for them to feel good about helping and allowing them to work towards mastering the task at hand.
2. Lower expectations and relinquish some control
If we want a task done “properly,” we will often rather do it ourselves. If we would like help, we must acknowledge that tasks must become a family responsibility rather than a personal one.
Offer guidance rather than instruction and let your toddlers do a task to the best of their ability. If possible, try not to redo the task once they’ve completed it; this sends the message that their input is inadequate.
Learn to accept the partially pulled-up duvet, the mostly tidied-up playroom, and the not so expertly packed dishwasher. As your toddler is encouraged and has chances to practice these tasks, their confidence will increase, and their abilities will improve.
3. No rewards for chores
By offering a reward for doing work, toddlers may lose the intrinsic desire to be helpful and start behaving as if it’s only necessary to help if a reward is involved.
When children (and adults) exhibit helpful or prosocial behavior that is intrinsically motivated–the best reward is a smile and a “Thank you.” If you’d like your child to help with something, rather appeal to their helpful nature than demand they do something or attempting to bargain with them to get it done.
Practical tips for encouraging helpfulness at home and outside
Here are some practical ways you can encourage your toddler’s natural helpfulness at home and when out and about:
- Have an easily accessible set of child-size cleaning tools such as brooms and dusters.
- Set up a child-friendly workstation in your kitchen so that your toddler can help with meal preparation.
- Provide your child with plates, mugs, and cutlery that can safely be carried by little hands (plastic, bamboo, metal).
- Have low shelves and storage spaces to make packing away and tidying up easy.
- Carry some spare change that they can drop into donation jars.
- Present opportunities for your child to donate—do not force your child to give away anything if it distresses them.
- Make sharing easier by having more than one toy when going to the playground or on a playdate. Encourage but do not force your child to share; it should be something they want to do.
- Model good “helper” behavior.
- Praise kindness and helpfulness, especially when it is completely spontaneous.
Reinforcing the behavior you want has its rewards
For a toddler, life is a time of eagerness and curiosity. By providing your child with opportunities to help within the scope of their ability, you are:
- Allowing them to try new things.
- Helping them to acquire valuable skills.
- Building their confidence.
- Providing them with a safe space to learn mastery of tasks.
- Improving their sense of self-worth.
- Allowing them to feel like contributing members of the family and society.