Back in the early 1990s, psychologist Suzanne Gaskins was living in a small Maya village near Valladolid, Yucatán, when she struck up a conversation with two sisters, ages 7 and 9.
The girls started telling her — with great pride — about all the chores they did after school. "I wash my own clothes," the 7-year-old said. The older sister then one-upped her and declared, "I wash my clothes and my baby brother's clothes."
Gaskins was so impressed by the girls' enthusiasm for helping around the house that she started to study how kids in the village spend their time. She quickly realized that the young kids not only made big contributions to household chores, but also that they often did so without being told. In fact, many times, helping out was their idea.
"Many times the children asked to do work around the house," Gaskins says.
"Mom, I'm going to help you do everything"
In the past 30 years, Gaskins and a handful of other psychologists have been documenting a remarkable phenomenon in indigenous families in Mexico and Guatemala: Young children in these homes are extremely helpful around the house.
They help do the laundry, help cook meals, help wash dishes. And they often do chores without being told. No gold stars or tie-ins to allowances needed.
In one study, psychologist Barbara Rogoff and her colleagues interviewed moms in Guadalajara, Mexico, who had indigenous ancestry. The researchers asked the moms what their children, who were all between the ages of 6 and 8, do to help around the house and how often they do these tasks voluntarily.
The study — published in 2014 — contains some of the most remarkable quotes I have ever seen in a research article.
For example, one mother said her 8-year-old daughter comes home from school and declares: "Mom, I'm going to help you do everything." Then she "picks up the entire house, voluntarily," the study reported.
"Another time, the mom comes home from work, and she's really tired," says Rogoff of the University of California, Santa Cruz. "She just plops herself down on the couch. And the daughter, says, 'Mom you're really tired, but we need to clean up the house. How about I turn on the radio and I take care of the kitchen and you take care of the living room and we'll have it all cleaned up?' "
Volunteering to help is such an important trait in kids that Mexican families even have a term for it: acomedido.
"It's a really complex term," says Andrew Coppens, an education researcher at the University of New Hampshire, who collaborates with Rogoff. "It's not just doing what you're told, and it's not just helping out. It's knowing the kind of help that is situationally appropriate because you're paying attention."
And the phenomenon isn't limited to children in Mexico. When families with indigenous roots move to the U.S., the parents keep the same approach to chores.
A few years ago, Coppens and his colleagues interviewed Mexican-American moms in Watsonville, Calif., about how often their children do chores. He then compared these moms' responses with those from middle-class families in Silicon Valley with European ancestry.
Although there was a lot a variation within each culture, Coppens says, a clear pattern emerged: "The Mexican-American kids, aged 6 to 7, were doing about twice as much around the house as the middle-class European-American kids, on average," he says. "And they were doing so, much, much more voluntarily."
A surprising insight into toddlers
So what on earth is these parents' secret?
This may come as a surprise, but over and over again, researchers said one thing is key: embracing the power of toddlers.
Yes, I'm talking about 1- to 3-year-olds who, in our culture, are more often associated with the term "terrible" than "helpful."
If you look around the world — whether the parents are hunting and gathering in Ecuador, raising cattle in the Himalayas or developing software in Silicon Valley — their toddlers have a few things in common.
The first is tantrums. Yes, toddler tantrums are pretty much unavoidable, no matter where you live, the ethnographic record shows.
But the second commonality is more positive: "Toddlers are very eager to be helpful," says David Lancy, an anthropologist at Utah State University, who documented this universality in his new book, Anthropology Perspectives on Children as Helpers, Workers, Artisans, and Laborers.
Toddlers are born assistants. Need help sweeping up the kitchen? Rinsing a dish? Or cracking an egg? No worries. Toddlers Inc. will be there on the double.
In one study, 20-month-olds actually stopped playing with a new toy and walked across the room to help an adult pick up something from the floor.
And they didn't need a reward for their assistance. In fact, the toddlers were less likely to help a second time if they were given a toy afterward, the study found.
"Children appear to have an intrinsic motivation to help," psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello concluded. "And extrinsic rewards seem to undermine it."
No one understands exactly why toddlers have this innate desire to be helpful (or why rewards diminish it). But it could stem from their strong drive to be around their family, says Rebeca Mejia-Arauz, a psychologist at ITESO University in Guadalajara.
"I think this point is really key," she says. "Doing things with other people makes them happy and is important for their emotional development. They see what their mom or siblings are doing, and they want to do it."
Messy toddler today, helpful kid later?
Sure, toddlers may want to help, but let's face reality here. At first, they really can't do much. They can be clumsy, destructive and even enraging. Their involvement in chores often slows things down or makes a mess.
For this reason, many parents in Western culture rebuff a toddler's offer to help, Mejia-Arauz says.
"We have mothers tell us things like, 'I need to do a chore very quickly, and if my toddler tries to help, he makes a mess. So I'd rather do it myself than having them helping,' " she says.
In many instances, Western moms tell the toddlers to go and play while they do the chores, she says.
But moms with indigenous heritage often do the exact opposite.
First, they give toddlers the opportunity to watch the chores as often as possible. "They invite them over by saying something like, 'Come, my child, and help me while I wash the dishes,' " Mejia-Arauz says.
Then if the child wants to participate, "they are welcome," she says, even if it means going more slowly or if the mom has to redo the task.
"For example, one mom told us: 'When my toddler was doing the dishes, at the beginning, the water was all over the place, but I would allow my son to the dishes because that's how he learned,' " she says.
The moms see it as an investment, Mejia-Arauz says: Encourage the messy, incompetent toddler who really wants to do the dishes now, and over time, he'll turn into the competent 7-year-old who still wants to help.
Research supports this hypothesis, says the University of New Hampshire's Andrew Coppens. "Early opportunities to collaborate with parents likely sets off a developmental trajectory that leads to children voluntarily helping and pitching in at home," he says.
Or another way to look at it is: If you tell a child enough times, "No, you're not involved in this chore," eventually they will believe you.
What about Western kids?
Cultures are complex packages. Parenting models in one culture likely won't work well in another. It's a bit like fusion cuisine. You can't simply take a few ingredients from a Oaxacan beef stew, add them to a New England chowder and expect it to taste good.
That said, Western parents can extract useful ideas from Mexican parenting style when it comes to raising helpful kids, says Utah State University's David Lancy.
"Absolutely," he says. "In fact, I think we are doing a disservice to toddlers and older children when we deny them the opportunity to pitch in and be helpful.
"But replicating the approach isn't easy in our society. It's not a slam-dunk," he adds. "We have to slow down what we're doing. We have to make allowances."
And we have to start early. As soon as you can:
1. Expose kids to chores as much as possible
Let them watch you cook, do the laundry or walk the dog. Let them help change a light bulb, plant herbs in the garden or help make a bed.
Basically, anything you want them to help with later on in life, be sure they're around while the activity is occurring.
"Especially during the early years, give children the opportunity to wander over and watch what's going on with the adults," Coppens says. You'll be surprised by how much toddlers and young children learn by simply observing what you do — no lecturing or explaining necessary.
This exposure also helps young children to see that chores are a social activity, Coppens says. They're opportunities to work together and be with family members — which young kids crave. Then kids associate chores with a fun, positive activity.
"This psychological integration into the family seems to be really powerful developmentally for kids learning to work together," Coppens says.
2. Think small tasks, big contributions
Offer opportunities for the child to help with the chore you're doing. Give them a task that is appropriate with their skill level. Maybe it's holding a measuring a cup while baking, moving a chair while sweeping or drying off a dish or two.
The task can be tiny, but the key part, Coppens says, is that it has to make a real contribution to the chore. It can't be a "fake" project or an action that has nothing to do with the real chore. Then everyone isn't working together for a common goal.
"In one of our studies, the middle-class, European families reported giving toddlers what we called 'mock work,' " Coppens says. For example, a mom would sweep the kitchen and afterward, she would give the broom to her young child to "resweep" the kitchen.
"The parents knew that the child wasn't contributing to chore, and pretty quickly, the kid will pick up on the same idea," Coppens says. And the kid loses out on the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes from making a real contribution.
3. Always aim to work together
A big motivating force for young children is being around their family, working on a common goal.
This motivation is lost if we divide up chores so everyone is working solo (or give kids mock work).
So for example, if you're doing laundry, be sure everyone is folding everyone's clothes. If you have the children just fold their own clothes while you fold your own, the tasks becomes more about working independently.
4. Don't force it
"Sometimes people think that to get children to do chores, like Maya kids do, the parents must be doing a really good job of controlling the kids," says Barbara Rogoff of UC Santa Cruz. But actually, the opposite is true.
"The aim is not to control the kids, but rather to develop the child's own initiative," she adds.
To do that, indigenous parents don't force kids to help. They encourage the child and offer opportunities to participate when the child is interested.
Forcing the child actually has the opposite effect, Rogoff says. It can generate resistance.
"Just like adults, kids don't like being bossed around," she says. "Asking a little kid, 'Could you help me with this?' often gets them on board more often than simply, saying 'You must do this.' "
When in doubt, talk collaboratively: "Saying to a child: 'let's do this together' sounds so much more interesting and rewarding than saying, 'I want you to do this,' " she adds.
5. Change your mindset about young children:
In the U.S., we often think toddlers and young children simply want to play, Coppens says. But the indigenous moms see a toddler coming over to them as an indication that they want to help.
The shift in mindset changes how the parent responds to the toddler's request to participate in chore, Coppens says.
"All parents are interested in supporting their kids," he says. "So if you assume that your child wants to play, then you are likely to find a better way for them to play that's somewhere out of your way while you finish the chore."
The result is a child separated from the adult activity and not around to learn about the chore — or about how to work together collaboratively.
"But if you make the assumption the toddler wants to help you, but he just doesn't have a good understanding of how to do that — then you'll try to find a way for him to help," Coppens adds. "You will help him help."
Over time, the "help" will grow in complexity. And the 2-year-old who stirs the pancake mix today could turn into the 6-year-old who makes the whole family breakfast — and feels darn good about it.