Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Let Me Help

Pie loves to help. As I empty the dishwasher, she fills it with toys, stuffing in plastic cups and saucers alongside wooden cookies and blueberry pie. At the grocery store, she holds the green peppers for me (insisting, sometimes, that I buy yellow or orange instead) and nibbles delicately at the stems when I’m not looking. She assists ably when it’s time to put the laundry away, handing me the towels one at a time or, when that gets boring, creating an obstacle course on the bed, dodging between piles to hand me the washcloth in triumph. “I’m helping,” she says, bristling with self-importance.

Bub is helpful too, but his assistance has to be approached differently. “Where does this belong?” I ask with a quizzical look. He takes the toy frying-pan from my hand and places it carefully and correctly on the Little Tikes stove. Appeals to his expertise will almost never be denied. The role of assistant is not one he covets – he is far more responsive when I defer to him as the expert.

According to a study I came across awhile ago, 17% of those diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in toddlerhood move off the spectrum by the time they are four years old. They may still have a few quirks – they’re easy to find if you know what to look for – but the children are scoring within average parameters on various measures, and they’re coping in mainstream classrooms without assistance. The researchers looked for trends to predict which kids would move off the spectrum and found little correlation between the severity of the symptoms at age two and the later outcome. The most significant predictive factor was the presence of motor skills sufficient for the child to help with minor household tasks.

No one knows why this is the case. Does helping out around the house nurture a sense of independence and cooperation? Is motor ability linked to the murkily understood causes of autism? The researchers couldn’t say.

I thought of this study today as Pie helped me sort and put away the laundry. It’s a startlingly complex interaction, this helping around the house. It involves, on her part, an imitative instinct: she wants to be like me, to be able to do the things I do. In pursuit of that goal, she is willing to accept guidance: she’ll let me tell her where to put each piece of laundry, and she’ll repeat my instructions under her breath as she works: “One-at-a-time. One-at-a-time.”

There is a world of verbal and non-verbal communication that develops in the completion of a joint task. Pie watches my movements and mimics them as we mop the floors, I with my real mop and she with her smaller plastic one. We coordinate our movements, communicating by means of glances and facial expressions as well as words. Implicit in all of these acts of communication is another set of messages: You are capable and strong. You’re a good helper. You are a valuable contributing member of our family. You belong.

“I do it.” These words tumble out of Pie’s mouth every day as she increasingly invests her sense of self in her own competence, the immense capability that animates her strong and skilful limbs.

Bub, meanwhile, ignores our housekeeping antics until his particular skills are called for. Instead of performing tasks, he shares knowledge. “Do you know where your sister is?” I asked him the other day when he emerged from the jungle climbers at the indoor playground. He raced back in eagerly, full of big-brotherly zeal. A moment later he emerged, Pie crawling through the tunnel behind him, a bit teary-eyed with worry. “I found her!” he announced. “She needs a hug!” Bub loves to navigate, to explain, to display what he knows by using that expertise in the service of some other, less well-informed person.

Most of our mornings this summer have been spent having fun. We’ve gone to the beach, to the park, to the splash pad – all the places where toddlers and preschoolers can be turned loose to run around and do whatever they want. But in some ways, our best mornings have been the ones we’ve spent at home folding laundry, mopping floors, dusting bookshelves. One of the handiest tricks I’ve picked up to deal with bored children in the car or at the grocery store has been to involve them in the successful accomplishment of our task. “Keep an eye out for the Shreddies!” I tell them as we cruise the cereal aisle. “Don’t forget to tell me when it’s time to turn!” I remind them as we drive home.

One of the reasons I always liked returning to school each September was that there’s something empty about having fun solely for the sake of having fun. To feel that I was accomplishing something difficult and impressive (like multiplication or cursive writing) was more rewarding, in many ways, than simply having endless stretches of free time.

I wonder if even very small children occasionally feel the same way.


Mad Hatter said...

Nope, I'm big on pleasure for pleasure's sake. I was always split somewhat down the middle with my desire to keep summer forever and to get back to school and get back 'er.

It's funny, I work with a number of male and female librarians and I can say that all the female librarians I work with are eager to help in a Pie sort of way and almost all of the male librarians have a Bub attitude of being helpful once their particular expertise is required. Curious.

Beck said...

"One of the reasons I always liked returning to school each September was that there’s something empty about having fun solely for the sake of having fun..."
Um, what? No. No, no, no. I have always, always hated school for taking me away from my frivolity - which would be why you're a high-powered university prof and I make cookies, I think.

cinnamon gurl said...

I also wondered if gender might be a factor. Although Swee'pea keeps cracking me grabbing cloths and wiping the floor with them spontaneously, and now he does it when he actually spills something. Of course, he deliberately spills some things, which is not entirely helpful.

I've just finished the first Harry Potter, and you are SO Hermione. Or at least you come across that way on your blog... me? I'm definitely pretty goal oriented but I do also enjoy fun for the sake of fun... fascinating post.

slouching mom said...

I can see you as Hermione! Yes.

Appeals to his expertise will almost never be denied.

You are a keen observer, B&P. You would have made a good psychologist or psychiatrist.

I agree that there may be a gender difference coming into play here.

And, BTW, that study on autism is fascinating. I hope its authors controlled for gender, because gender would have confounded their results.

painted maypole said...

I do like accomplishing tasks, too, but maybe not quite as much as you. :)

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I like having goals, I like accomplishing things, but it always seemed to me that school focussed on the most ridiculous things. I'd rather invent my own projects. That's why I loved college -- I could pick the class that seemed most suited to what I hoped to learn, rather than being stuck with, say, multiplication tables.

Like Cin & Mad, I also wondered about gender differences. My daughter likes to do that dance you describe, the non-verbal imitation & affirmation, but my son? Ya gotta be explicit. DO IT THIS WAY. HELP ME NOW. He's happy to help but I have to be explicit.

bubandpie said...

Yup, I'm Hermione all right. I think my attitude towards fun is the same as my attitude towards humour - it's easier for me to laugh and have fun when I'm not TRYING to, or feeling like I have to. Both are usually the by-product of activities that have some other goal. (That was one reason I loved my three months in Germany - there was never any pressure to have fun because even the most boring activity afforded amazing opportunities for language acquisition. And if the point of this comment was to make myself seem like less of a nerd it just backfired completely.)

The gender difference here is a classic example of Nancy Chodorow's theory of gender. The activities I described in this post (mopping, laundry, etc.) are all things the children see ME doing, but not their father - so it stands to reason that Pie will emulate me more closely than Bub. At our nursery-school visit last month, however, there was a BBQ set, which Bub took to like a duck to water, having seen his father operate a barbecue on more than one occasion (the same goes for all cooking, actually - hubby cooks more than I do, and Bub loves to cook up a meal on the Little Tikes stove).

AnneK said...

I am with you on this, I find it difficult to have fun for the sake of having fun. I want to, but I find it difficult to completely relax. I sometimes fear I am turning into the kind of person who makes a timetable saying "5:30-6:45 Have fun". It can sometimes seem contrived and I need to be doing something moderately challenging to give meaning to fun without trying too hard.

kgirl said...

I find the best way to pull Bee out of feeling down is to engage her in 'helping' me. Sweeping the floor, whether it needs it or not, or sorting cutlery - engaging her in any activity that is typically my domain - sometimes distracts her from her woes even more than a popsicle or a a toy would.

Kit said...

Great post beautifully observed.

"Implicit in all of these acts of communication is another set of messages: You are capable and strong. You’re a good helper. You are a valuable contributing member of our family. You belong." This is so true and why I have to curb my impatience when the 'help' slows me down and allow their participation, trying to visualise a time when this training will pay off and they will do all the chores for me.......well, a nice dream anyway!

Getting them to help find things in the supermarket certainly is a great way of getting through the shopping, though we often end up with three of favoured items because each of them wanted to get one off the shelf!

Karen said...

yes, indeed, there can only be so much fun at a go or it seems like my kids forget it's fun - maybe they only experience fun when they have short doses of un-fun to remind them how fun fun is? I'm not sure, but they are never so happy as after a long, boring car ride then spilling onto a far away beach. They are also never so happy to just play in the back yard as they are after nap/quiet rest/homework time is over.

Ally said...

I find that the kids (and I) have fun being my "helpers" around the house, so long as I'm not actually on a mission to accomplish something. I love what you're teaching your kids-- these lines:

"You are capable and strong. You’re a good helper. You are a valuable contributing member of our family. You belong."

There is nothing more powerful than belonging, no matter what your age.

nomotherearth said...

I agree with the others that at least some of the differences between Bub and Pie are due to the different gender.

"Helping out" is almost always met with positively at our house. I really feel that kids want to be helpful, useful. Funny that the need should be present in such young people.

NotSoSage said...

Woman, you are smart.

That's all.

Lawyer Mama said...

I was about to chime in on gender differences because I see this in my male and female colleagues, but I see everyone has mentioned it!

My boys do emulate us when we perform household tasks, but they see both me and my husband doing them and I'm sure that explains a lot!

Omaha Mama said...

I remember readying very recently an article about letting kids help out around the house from a young age. And that it's a good thing.

I think that's some of my problem with housekeeping. I had the mom who didn't have us do a thing, because she To make sure it was right. She let us do our own thing. But now I still want to do my own thing - forget vacuuming!

So I think I will now start my kids in on helping, because the effect has to be better!

Omaha Mama said...


Where did that pesky Y come from???

Gwen said...

What Kit said. Unfortunately, even the implicit idea that one can be valuable by being helpful carries no weight with my youngest daughter, who just. doesn't. care. Except at school. I was (only mildly) shocked to watch her pick up today, and very skillfully, when the teacher rang the bell.

I think I need a bell.

Bells for everyone!

Terri said...

I do believe children especially preschoolers feel very important when they are helping out. Even my school age children still want to help, but now they are a little more selective about what they want to help me do. They both love to help cook, but loading the dishwasher not so much.

My husband is much better about including our girls in household tasks than I am. I, like omaha mama, had a mother that just didn't really teach us how to help because she just wanted to get it done and get it done right. I find myself fighting this tendency with my own children. I know teaching them now will pay off in the end.

And you know, I feel the same way you do about the empty feeling of endless frivolity. I like to have fun, but after several summer months of catering to my children's desire for fun, I'm ready for school and routine and my kids need it, too.

Janet said...

I used to loathe taking my kids to the grocery store because it seemed to involve so many admonishments.

Then, when Elyse was a newborn, my husband came back from shopping declaring that he had sent the kids to fetch various items on their own. Everyone was so very happy.

"Brilliant in its simplicity!" I thought. And it does work, as long as I don't let them fetch the big bags of milk; because they are heavy and slippery and easily dropped. And when you drop those bags of milk? They burst.

bgirl said...

i'm sitting here, again smiling at our similar boys. i was told to have my little dude join in household chores as well. setting the table, clearing the table, pouring the drinks, sorting the laundry, in fact all sorting activities were recommended to me.

and finally now at 4 (vs the typical 2yr olds) he says continually.."i want to do it mama" "give it to me, i can do it"

my feeling on ASD, is it is twice as hard and twice as good. his uniquess comes with certain specialties i would never otherwise encounter.

i am happy for the return of school, where it's not just mama having him stay on task. so though i am eager for him to continue his 'work' i know we are both hesitant to leave 'our' work....which of course always promises popsicles at the end!

Angela said...

I have found that having my son help me with laundry makes him happy and less likely to cause trouble.
Children want to be part of the family.
Glad that you have found something that works well for your two sweet kids.

Kyla said...

I agree with Beck. And she also made me laugh out loud. The only reason I ever looked forward to school was lunchtime. *lol* Friends all stuck together in one place. Quite lovely after summers of being split apart for family vacations and such.

Christine said...

i loved this post so much. and like the others i wonder how gender fits in. though my boy loves moping and dusting!

mayberry said...

Fascinating -- what an interesting study and I love your take on it.

Swistle said...

I really liked this.

Patois said...

My daughter, on the spectrum much more pronounced when younger, was never one to model my behavior. My son, the older of the two by 20 months, was always doing so. In our situation, gender didn't seem to play much of a role. The level of attachment each felt to me seemed to be much more important. Did I realize any of this in the moment? Nope. The pieces only all fell together when girlie was about 4.5 years old.

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

Competence in practical matters is missing from kids' lives to an extent that's probably rather unique in human history except for maybe the extreme upper classes. I think that's sad, and do my best to make sure my boys will know their way around the kitchen and how to do household chores, as well as have an understanding of their natural environment. Both my boys help more like your Pie, by the way, though perhaps not always as eagerly. You clearly know your kids very well.

Jennifer said...

I'm all about the fun for fun's sake. But my kids? All love to help me with the chores I rush through to get to the fun. Go figure. :)

Christina said...

Cordy so far has no interest in household chores or in copying my behavior. She really doesn't pay attention to what we do around the house. I try to explain what I'm doing and ask her to help, but she always runs the other way.

Like Bub, though, she's excellent at telling me what she knows. I can ask her where things are, and she can tell me. She just won't go pick it up.

ewe are here said...

Ah, I love it when toddlers 'help', even though the 'help' can make everything take quite a bit longer.

'I do it!' is a constant refrain around here these days, or 'MF helps!', when MF wants to do something himself and declines my help.

Susanne said...

Definitely children too need a sense of purpose. And of capability and of accomplishment. Would you like to sit around feeling useless?

And I loved going back to school, having tasks and structure and duties. I still do.