Teaching Values to Young Children:
Self-Help and Responsibility
Children like to take on responsibility and to help. As a parent, it may take patience to teach them routines of self-help. It’s important to be aware of what your children can do at different ages, so that you don’t expect too much from them. But it is never too early to begin instilling in children the habits of helping themselves and helping around the house.
Two and three year olds
Two and three year olds are often trying hard to be independent, and so may try to be helpful. Their vocabulary is growing daily, but they still may struggle to be understood. They are beginning to match some colors, and can remember up to three directions at a time. They may have difficulty making decisions.
What you can do
Having your child help at home presents many opportunities for learning. For instance, you can develop your child’s vocabulary by pointing out locations of where things belong (i.e. under the cabinet, in the box, over the sink, etc.) It is unrealistic to expect children at this age to clean up all their toys; however, you can say, “let’s clean up together,” and then show the child how it is done. They can do simple tasks. For example you can say, “please put the book on the shelf, and the bear in the toy box.” Provide storage bins or baskets to create easy clean-up. You can also start teaching some skills in the kitchen which develop motor skills, such as pouring. (This is also a good bath time activity.) In terms of self-help, at this age, your child may have a difficult time zipping, lacing and buttoning, but you can practice these skills with many commercially created toys for this purpose, or you can make your own. Praise your children whenever they help you, and encourage them in their efforts at self-help.
Four and five year olds
Four and five years olds enjoy helping at home with chores, such as watering the plants, feeding a pet or recycling. They love to splash around in water, and welcome ‘dishwashing’ opportunities. They are capable of cleaning up after themselves with guidance and help from an adult. They are very capable of many self-help routines. For the most part, they can dress themselves, but may still have difficulty with small buttons; they usually cannot lace their shoes yet, though they are willing to try.
What you can do
Encourage and praise your children when they try to dress themselves. This is a good opportunity to teach colors and matching, in addition to responsibility. Your child may want to choose what clothing to wear. One way to empower your child without creating a power struggle is to offer two choices of clothing. In the kitchen, children enjoy elementary cooking with supervision. Cooking is a good way to develop motor skills, vocabulary and math skills. Talk to your children as you measure, pour, and mix.
To help children of this age know what is expected of them, create a picture, or a sequence of pictures of what you want children to do. For instance, you can make bedtime easier if you follow a routine, and have a sequence of pictures for children to follow (brushing their teeth, getting on their pajamas, reading with you, going to sleep). These pictures, which can be downloaded from the internet or cut out of magazines, help provide structure to a child’s life, and also help with important literacy skills such as sequencing and matching. As at all ages, praise your child for a job well done!
Six and seven year olds
Six and seven year olds already have learned many self-help routines at school. They can dress themselves, use silverware adeptly, and can pour well. All in all, they are becoming more independent. They can help at home with many chores around the house.
What you can do
This is an ideal age to develop further the habit of helping around the house. There are many things children this age can do: they can set the table, load the dishwasher (no sharp knives), wipe off the table, help sort laundry, assist in basic food preparation, take out the garbage, feed the pets, etc. Keep safety in mind always, and teach your children to know their limitations so they don’t hurt themselves (i.e. climbing onto counters to get something, cooking without supervision, taking a bath without you knowing where they are, etc.). Children at all ages need supervision.