How do you teach helpfulness while promoting responsibility? Talk amongst yourselves.

Amazon: Do I Have To?: Kids Talk About Responsibility I try to model helpfulness for my kids. If someone wants a drink and I'm near the fridge, I'm happy to get it for them. I help with homework. I help in a million ways, as do all parents.

I also expect helpfulness from my kids. They have chores that are framed as "ways they help the family." It helps me prepare dinner when they set the table. It helps Dad do the laundry when they put the dirty clothes down the chute every day.

But a problem has slowly been building in our home, one that's subtle enough that I haven't really recognized it till now. My kids ask for help when they don't need it. Like asking for drinks while they're sitting at the kitchen table and I'm in another room. (That's one of many examples.)

Not a huge deal. I just say "you're closer to the fridge, you can get it yourself," which they do. The problem is that I say this often, and there's this growing air of unhelpfulness floating through the house. I hear my kids telling each other to "do it yourself!" much more often than I see them offering to help each other. Or I see them complete their responsibilities, and then shrug off helping because "their work is done."

I get resentful when my kids, who, in the scheme of things, have very little to do, ask The Very Obviously Busy Person for help with trivial tasks, or jobs they know are their responsibilities.

*hears self starting to whine. takes deep, calming breath.*

Now when I get a request for help on something I think they can do themselves, I say "give it your best try for five minutes. If, after that, you still need help, I'm there." I've been known to set a timer. Most of the time this works.

But I can't shake the feeling that there should be more bi-directional, un-asked-for helping going on in my family, combined with more personal responsibility-taking.

I know, should. Not the most helpful of words. So I'll just ask:

How do you balance teaching helpfulness while promoting personal responsibility?

Related: How do you gradually give your older child independence?


  1. Nicole says

    I noticed the very same thing going on in our family as well! One of the ways we have tried to create an “air of helpfulness” is by keeping chore charts (for the personal responsibility part) and also by having a family “power hour”. This usually happens after dinner is done and cleaned up so its just toys on the floor, shoes out of the box, sweatshirts hanging around etc..and everyone is “responsible” to help with everything, not just their mess. We do it to fast paced music and everyone has a great time helping..even mom and dad!
    As for the helping each other, when I get snacks or drinks, or anything really, I non-nonchalantly ask one of my kids to bring it to their brother first and then come get theirs. We’ve done this for so long that I don’t usually have to ask anymore, as one of them will just grab something for their brother while their at whatever it is their doing. We also expect our older boys to “help” with their little brothers… and focus on praising them for their good attitudes rather than what they just DID. Sop far, it seems to have helped.
    As far as them always asking mom before they do it themselves…yeah, haven’t figured that one out yet! :)

  2. says

    I so hear you. This morning I went through the usual routine of making my child’s packed lunch, followed by nagging of putting clothes on (including fresh underwear), brush teeth and hair. I put the schoolbag by the door and as I opened the car door reminded the 7 year-old (who should be capable of so much more) not to forget her bag. Do you think the bag made it to school? And who got to go home to get it?

    OK, whining over…

  3. Kevin says

    I’ve been struggling over the exact same issue. I’ve talked to her about it and explained that I’ll help with tasks that she needs help with (as opposed to those she wants help with), but every time I point out her request is something she can handle I know I’m not modeling a helpful attitude. I’m really excited to see you brought up this dilemma and am looking forward to the discussion.

  4. says


    I can totally relate. A few weeks ago, I created a few lists. AM Checklist, PM Prep, etc. I put them on cardstock and keep them in a drawer. This works like a dream for my 8 year old. In the morning I tell him to finish his AM Checklist before he comes out for breakfast. He even remembers to put his lunch by the front door next to his backpack. However, if its not on the list, forget it!

  5. gb says

    great idea, mariasimplyput! it’s a great discussion point and one I’m interested in hearing more about.

  6. says

    Lists are huge in my house! Much of the problem stems from kids not knowing the unspoken expectations. My problem is keeping the lists visible and remembering to refer to them myself.

  7. Miss Independent says

    I remember having way more responsibilities than my friends. My mother is a very independent person herself, and she just didn’t do things that she felt we (2 girls) could do ourselves. By age 7, my laundry was my responsibility. Our laundry machines were very simple, I think 2 buttons for the washing machine and one for the dryer. (I remember being SHOCKED 10 years later to find out that one of my friends had to learn to use the washer and dryer so that he could move out for college!) Another good example I can think of is making appointments. I became self-conscious about my appearance in middle school. So when I would say “Mom, I need a haircut”, she would invariably say “Make an appointment and I will drive you”. Now this was before the internet, so I would haul out the yellow pages and make an appointment for myself. The same conversation would occur if I needed a physical for sports or whatnot… So we had the independence part DOWN… but not the helpfulness! My sister and I were fairly horrible to each other until we were nearly adults. (By horrible I mean always trying to get the other one “in trouble”, being possessive about belongings and friends, etc.)

  8. Betsy says

    So, we are trying an experiment. I’ve actually dumped the ‘chore chart.’ However, if you are asked to do something, you respond with kindness and try to get it done as quickly as possible.
    My thinking was that some of the chores were a little artificial. I’m not going to wait for a kid to get home from school to empty the dishwasher. I’ll do it myself and load it back up again.
    We are also talking a bit more about helpfulness. Looking for ways to make someone’s day a little easier.
    I was hoping for more suggestions here. Because I am feeling it too.

  9. says

    I think it’s all about modeling the kind of behavior you’re trying to teach. Help your kids, but also ask them to help you! And when they do, let them know how very much it’s appreciated. I think that ultimately kids really want to please us.

  10. says

    I created lazy cards and distributes 3 to each of my kids. It entitles them to be lazy when they present the card. Now when they ask for something they can do themselves I ask “Sure I can get you a glass of water, do you want to use your lazy card?” inevitably they have a better use for it…

  11. says

    Such a good topic of convo Asha. Laurel tends to be a pretty helpful kid but we certainly have our episodes…

    Also, what really bugs me about the current culture is the payment for chores. I don’t have the healthiest baseline here — my dad marched the seven of us kids around like an army… digging rosebush trenches, working 12-14 hour days at the convenience store, etc… and all of that was expected duty without compensation. But still, I feel that helping with basic household duties such as dishes, laundry, picking up one’s room, etc. should not result in financial pay out.

  12. says

    Now that’s just smart…a great way to bring awareness to those “lazy” moments without judgment. Also, a way to acknowledge that we all just want to be lazy once in a while.

    Any chance you can email me a picture of those lazy cards? Would love to do a post about them.

  13. says

    Agreed. Sometimes, when I compliment my son on an extra well-done job, he’ll reply “Can I have 15 minutes extra game time?” or “Can I have an extra dollar?” This is the flip side of reward systems! I’ve begun to say (without sarcasm): “You can have something much more valuable…my sincere appreciation for your help.”

  14. says

    Great post! We struggle with the same issue so it’s so helpful to see how others are dealing with it too. I also try to stick in the conversation a “doesn’t that make you proud of yourself” and “doesn’t that make you feel good” when they’ve done something especially helpful. I’m hoping it adds another layer of motivation on top of the desire to please others.

  15. says

    Our eldest is just 3 but guess what? He spontaneously started helping to clear the table this week, as well as closing the curtains at dusk.

    I do use leverage a lot – i’ll play memory with you if you put away your building blocks. Praise when he helps out. And I’ll take time out to include hem when I can – let him help washing veggies or set the table. I’ll always let him know I’m happier when he’s around helping out, it’s not just about the chore itself but also about his company.

    Then there’s the issue of asking for help when it’s not really needed. To me, this is a clear heads up for attention: his way of asking to do something together. He may also spontaneously come up to me and give me a toy car: this is your car. Come on you guys, they’re kids! They want to play – with you, too :)

    Finally – I’m no saint – I do get grumpy when I feel overwhelmed by different things he’s asking me. I’ll try to take out time to explain. When I do, I feel better.

    Also, my biggest pitfall is overasking him – asking stuff that’s just to complicated for him. I’ve recognized this and will check now and then – or is that too hard for you? He used to break down crying when I overasked him, unable to express what was going on. He so wanted to help and felt so helpless and frustrated (poor guy! bad mommy!). Now I’ll now sooner when I venture near the “too complex” zone and I’ll ask simpler things and/or help him more. Guess I’m trying to say this could go for your kids too, even though they are older. Pressure, especially when there are a lot of rules tied to how things should be done.

  16. Dorothea in London says

    Hi all,

    I have read up a fair various books things about this, and tried various approaches. I have 2 sons aged 5 (going on 16 in terms of attitude!) and 18 months. Here are my conclusions so far:

    What has not worked well

    1) Chore cards: We tried a variation of the chore chart- chore cards, see here:
    I involved my husband and son in making them. We did it for about 3 weekends then it tailed off. It felt fun but a bit articifical really.
    2) Repetition: I do ask my son over and over to do certain things as a routine, some of them not even chores, e.g. hang up his coat, put his shoes away, put his pyjama in his bed; I am polite, appreciative when he does it , bla bla bla. On the whole, it does not work. I just get tired of repeating the same things, and it becomes a regular source of annoyance on both sides.
    3) “Shoulds”: Every time I ask my older son to help in a tone that suggests he “should” and that it’s his duty to obey, he is completely obstructive

    What has worked well
    1) “Catch them doing something great”
    When my son has done something helpful off his own back for the first time, and I have praised him for it, he has typically then tended to do that again and again out of his own initiative with pleasure. For example, he is very helpful opening doors for me when I am with the buggy; will happily order our grocery shopping online by himself; tidy the grocery shopping away himself; asks if he may help me (!) cook dinner on sunday nights and will then do whatever he is asked;
    make breakfast for himself and his little brother
    2) Almost every time I ask my son to help by saying: “Would you be a star and do this and that for me? ” he complies with the request.
    3) A bit of sibling competition
    My younger son likes to tidy things away (amazingly for his age!) and I praise him a lot when he does that, and make sure that I let my older son know too: “Look Leo is already putting his blocks away – that’s amazing for his age isn’t it? He is only 1!”
    4) Make a list/plan of what needs doing for the day together
    Sometimes we sit with my older son, and agree what we want to and need to do that day/afternoon; he writes the list (or at least the first letter of each word); we agree on the most practical order and he writes the numbers next to each item; if he then says he doesn’t want to do something, or help with something, i say: check your plan – what’s in the plan?

    This experience of mine is similar to what a renowned Danish family expert Jesper Juul advocates.
    In a nutshell, he says that it IF chore charts, chore reward systems etc, are working for you , then great. IF NOT though, it is best to call a family council, tell your children that you have decided that it woudl be best for the whole family to drop those systems completely, and wait until they are ready to help out by themsleves. He predicts that whilst children will initially respond by doing nothing at all anymore, if you can resist nagging, within a few weeks they will start helping all by themselves. I actually came accross this theory after I had come to a similar conclusion myself through my own experiences.
    If you are intersted in the wider ideas underpinning this, here is a link to his only book translated in English

    In a nut shell, he argues that neither should parents be the boss like in the old days, nor should children rule the family; but parents should be clear about their own needs and wants, and when they ask their children to do something, they should do so from the perspective of their own needs, rather than present it as some sort of rule system, or hierarchy.

    It’s a lot harder work than what I see my brother do with his family. Their family is old-style authorian (with punishments etc). But that is the path i have now chosen to go on… It’s a work in progress.

  17. says

    I used to be a Love and Logic facilitator. They had the best line for just these types of moments. When kids don’t do something, forget a chore or leave a coat on the floor, they recommend that the next time the child asks for help the parent says, “I would be happy to help you love, as soon as your coat is hung up or your chore is done.”

    You can expect some whining or complaining. Just know that the whining / complaining is the child’s attempt to bring you back to the way things used to be. The time when he was allowed to forget a chore, you know, like yesterday. His whining and complaining is telling you, “I don’t like this, but I guess I will have to do it anyway.”
    Hang in there. It gets easier the more you do it.

  18. says

    We have a lot of the same as many commenters wrote before me, BUT with a twist. Sometimes my eldest daughter wants to be the “little Mommy”/helper and does things for her younger sister (2) who is “learning” to do things for herself. It becomes problematic because the elder daughter is “too” helpful and the younger sister gets upset as she’s in a “I do it myself” stage (which is a good stage for her to learn responsibility and see that she is growing up and can do things for herself). So we’re teaching them to be responsible for their own things, to be helpful BUT to listen to each other so they will know when to let the other person do it themselves. It’s a bit day-to-day and learn-as-we-go around here.

  19. says

    Awesome question and love your site … I have a post in the works about this very topic. IMO, this is a critical character-building opportunity for children.

    What I do:

    1) I don’t do that much for the kids. If they can do it themselves, they are expected to do. When they’re young that means finding their coats and shoes. When they’re a little old, dressing themselves. Getting their own snacks out of the fridge, etc etc. Whatever they can do they do. This makes them used to not asking for help when they don’t need it.

    2) Everyone shares the group work. If there is something to be done, we all step up to do part of it. With dinner, a parent cooks but kids set the table. The person who cooked DOES NOT HAVE TO CLEAN UP AFTER DINNER.

    3) If I ever see them refuse to help someone in a reasonable situation then I make sure to apply the golden-rule, telling them “Next time you need or want something from me, you aren’t going to get it so that you know how you made the other person feel.” The next chance I get, later that day or another day, the child will be reminded in a real-life situation when they least expect it.