What if your kids actually wanted to help you? What if I told you that we are unknowingly teaching our children to be unhelpful and to think their role in our family unit is to play and stay out of the way? Let's talk about an approach that the Mayans having been using for thousands of years.
Acomedido: Being Helpfully Aware
In Mayan culture there is a term that is given to being aware of your surroundings and taking action without being asked, it's acomedido. To be acomedido is what parents in this culture strive to teach their children. To know their role in the family, to understand their responsibilities and to do so without being asked. And if we look at all anthropological and observational research, they are really good at it.
In Hunt, Gather, Parent (2021), Doucleff and her daughter traveled to various cultures around the world on a quest to figure out what was different about their parenting versus Western parenting. They spent time in a tiny Mayan village to learn the ways of teaching responsibility to young children. They broke it down into 3 steps of training our children. Let's get into it.
Step 1: Let Your Kids Practice
This one is especially hard for Western parents, and in my opinion, the most useful step. It may be counterintuitive, but the idea here is to give the task to the least capable player in the room: the toddler.
Here's the thing. Toddlers love helping. No matter the culture, parenting style, or geographic location, toddlers have two things in common: temper tantrums, and "I do it all by myself". Toddlers love getting hands on with any and every possible task they observe. In fact, you never have to ask a toddler to help. It is a normal part of social and emotional development for toddlers to be drawn to doing things with other people and a community mindset. This is why toddlers love following their caregivers around trying to complete whatever task is happening- whether it be cleaning, cooking, or pretending to type on the computer or talk on the phone.
This concept is hard for parents. Toddlers are messy, and they aren't necessarily good at cleaning. If you let a toddler help rinse dishes for example, you might end up with water all over your counter or your floor. In Mayan culture, caretakers never say no to a toddler who wants to help. Even when toddlers are rude, grabby, or demanding- they are always allowed to help and learn.
Messes are an investment. If you breathe deeply through the messes, you will eventually allow your child the space needed to learn the skill through practice. The toddler making a mess at the sink will soon be a young child competent at doing the dishes. The children who were allowed the space to fail eventually master the skills needed to be helpful around the house and actually make a difference in their tasks.
What happens when you do say no to your toddler the next few times they grab the broom and try to sweep "all myself"? You are discouraging them from continuing to put effort towards trying. They will eventually stop trying to help. You are teaching them that their family role is: 1. To go play (or watch Youtube) and 2. To stay out of my way. Helping is not a part of their responsibility. I could get into why this is bad for attachment, but that's a whole other blog article to get into!
The summary here is this: If we think our toddlers are incapable, we will cause them to truly be incapable.
Step 2: Give them a Membership Card
In Mayan culture, there is a belief that everybody has a purpose- even the toddlers and children in the family. The most interesting part of how helpful these children are is that the caregivers in Mayan culture do not argue with their children to do get them to complete tasks. They don't bribe them, manipulate them or yell at them (Doucleff, 2021).
In Western society, there is a belief that as parents we are responsible for creating an almost constant influx of entertainment for our children. This shows up in the form of filling out kids schedules with child-centered activities or classes, giving them mass amounts of "stuff", giving them access to things like phones and tablets for several hours of screen time per day. In contrast, the Mayans play alongside the adults in their lives as they work- whether it's on household tasks or family business. By being in close proximity to these activities and not having constant stimulation- they learn by observing, or, shadowing their parents in regular day-to-day life. Having access to real life becomes their play. They also learn the value of being bored and self-stimulation, and having fun with less.
This is a way for children to learn with no pressure and no power struggles. And it goes both ways. It is also a way for adults to have more of a break while still being able to get work done. When you sit a child in front of a screen or tell them to "go play" when you are cooking or cleaning, you are unintentionally sending them a message about their family role. This makes it difficult to develop a community or family mindset, which will make it much less likely they will participate in family-minded activities. Also the less toys, "stuff" and screens they have, the more interesting your regular daily work will look to them.
Aside from Mayan culture, these are principles heavily emphasized in Montessori practices. The more simple, the better. The more practical and "real" the task or the play, the better.
Step 3: Acknowledge (And Teach Internal Motivation)
Before the gentle parenting wave, we were (and some still are) a society that employed rewards and punishments as motivators. Some common forms of this are: the use of a chore chart, taking electronics away, grounding children, etc. These are external factors of motivation. In Mayan culture, the motivator is an internal one- a desire for the child to feel like they are a part of the family (Doucleff, 2021). Including children in regular adult tasks shows them they are a part of the family, and in this way, they get their family membership card. This taps into our innate desire, as social beings, to belong.
Internal motivation has been heavily researched throughout the years. The summary of how we can create an environment conducive to internal motivation is if three things are present:
Connectedness- the more connected to the family unit the child feels, the more they will want to work on family tasks
Autonomy- Not forcing or punishing a child for not having interest in a task
Competency- Your child knows when they are completing a task that actually makes a difference. Give them something real to do (Doucleff, 2021).
Does acknowledging a child mean the same thing as giving praise? No. When used excessively, praise breeds competition between siblings, and causes children to only want to act to receive praise (this is an external motivator). When taken to an extreme, praise can cause a child to turn into a people pleaser. Plus, I promise your kiddo will always notice when your praise is not genuine. Praise in these ways will undermine internal motivation.
Praise in the form of acknowledgment is accepting the child's work even if they didn't do a great job. It's staying self-aware and patient and not constantly correcting or lecturing your child through a task. This will discourage them from participating by decreasing their self-confidence with any given task. Show your child that you value their ideas. Tell them when you think they have a good idea. Use praise for general helpfulness but never for an individual task. Saying things like "You're so helpful", "You're very kind" or "You're such a great big brother/sister" is praising a general value of helpfulness within the family unit, and will increase the connectedness the child feels to the family unit.
Is It Too Late For Us?
It's never too late to create more connection in your family unit, and to teach your child to be more connected to a family mindset in the home, which will lead to more helpfulness around the house. When you have a baby, it's pretty simple: your work is their entertainment, and they love watching and helping. An easy way to do this is to make sure they are always able to watch-whether seated next to you, or while baby wearing.
If you have a toddler- ask them for 3-4 small, attainable tasks per day. Something like "I'm unloading the dishwasher, take this pan and put it in that cabinet". Or "grab me a paper towel". Toddlers love being asked to complete small tasks. And never say no. Tasks that are too advanced for a toddler can be separated into subtasks. Tasks that are too dangerous can be modified, or used as an opportunity to say "Watch so that you can learn". Remember if a task seems too dangerous, do not panic- teach your child safety instead.
Reminder: Never a force a small child when they are uninterested. We are teaching cooperation and helpfulness, not obedience. We are also teaching that we respect autonomy and personal choices. Forcing children is ineffective because it decreases internal motivation and damages the parent-child relationship. The damage this causes will make your child even less likely to listen to your requests in the future.
If your kids are older and this is all new to your family, let them observe you constantly. Make activities around the house family activities for everyone to participate in. And announce them as you are doing them. For example "I'm going to get dinner started" can be an unspoken invitation to have them join you. Or "let's clean up after dinner". Rather than asking for help, make an announcement of what needs to be done and what's about to happen. This is not going to work all the time, but eventually your child will learn in what ways they can help without fighting.
Above all, remember that if these principles are new to your child, they are learning how to be helpful. Be patient with them. Emphasize togetherness in your journey to creating a more cohesive family unit. Babies are born with an innate desire to connect. We see this when we try to put babies down and they cry, and we see it with children in many different ways when we attempt to force independence before they are ready. Be gentle with your children as they learn interdependence. If we help our children when they need us, they will be much more likely to be cooperative and help us when we need them.
Where Do I Start?
Self-awareness is the the most important piece of the puzzle that is getting started. A great experiment to try is let your phone record your interactions with your child for 30-60 minutes. Listen later for a few things:
How do you speak to your child?
Do you let them help out?
Do you value their ideas?
Do you speak harshly to them?
Do you offer false praise?
How do your children respond back to you, and how does their temperament change in response to you?
References: Doucleff, M., & Trujillo, E. (2022). Hunt, gather, parent: What ancient cultures can teach us about the lost art of raising happy, helpful little humans. Avid Reader Press.
At Root Counseling, we understand how parenting struggles can impact the whole family. We support you in your journey of creating togetherness. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.