The goal here is empowerment, not efficiency.
Sometimes it seems like all that's standing between me and a clean house is my 2-year-old, a master of destruction and mess-making. But he doesn't only apply enthusiasm to tossing toys from their bins each morning. He is enthusiastic about everything, in the adorable way toddlers tend to be.
Yet, here I've been, trying to redirect that desire to do something into things that simply distract him while I do the cleaning—rather than channeling his enthusiasm into the cleaning itself.
Instead, it seems I need to take a cue from Mayan mamas by involving my toddler in chores even when it comes at the cost of productivity.
In her time visiting the Yucatan for NPR's #HowToRaiseaHuman series, writer Michaeleen Doucleff says she regularly observed toddlers engaging in chores, which gave way to children and preteens who voluntarily helped out around the house.
In consulting with the Mayan women and later Barbara Rogoff, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied the Maya culture for 30 years, Doucleff says it became clear this was less about setting out to get children to do chores and more about engaging with them in empowering ways.
But what if there is another way to interact with kids that removes control from the equation, almost altogether?
That's exactly what the Maya — and several other indigenous cultures — do. Instead of trying to control children, Rogoff says, parents aim to collaborate with them."It's kids and adults together accomplishing a common goal," Rogoff says. "It's not letting the kids do whatever they want. It's a matter of children — and parents — being willing to be guided."
As it turns out, Doucleff and her own 2-year-old daughter were excellent candidates for testing out the theory that children's zest for being "helpers" can be positively directed. While they learned that helping with some tasks may need to be on hold for the time being (such as picking up dog poo and helping with hot skillets), Doucleff says encouraging her daughter to help with dishes, laundry and other toddler-sized tasks may slow the progress a bit—but it's paying off in other ways.
"Such contributions are tiny—and don't really help me. But I can tell she is learning something golden: To love collaborative activities and working together," Doucleff says.
After striving to work together on chores, Doucleff says she learned positive changes can be as simple as making an activity out of chores (rather than saving them for nap time) and by identifying the toddler-friendly action in the larger chore (such as holding the dust pan or by matching socks).
As Dr. Laura Markham previously said for Motherly, kids appreciate having responsibilities. "All children want to see themselves as 'response-able'—powerful and able to respond to what needs to be done. They need this for their self-esteem, and for their lives to have meaning."
How to try it at home
For proof, we shouldn't only look to the entire Mayan culture, but also aim to practice this philosophy in our own homes. To do so, Markham suggests a few places to start:
1. Raise your children to clean up their own messes: If they spill their milk, give them the towel to help clean it up.
2. Empower your children to do the thinking: Instead of telling them to brush their teeth, ask, "What's the next thing we do in the morning?"
3. Model responsibility: If you see trash at the playground, narrate, "I'm going to throw this in the bin because we don't like litter."
For Doucleff, practicing this has made her house a bit cleaner. But, more importantly, her daughter is excited to get involved. As she says, "When we do a chore together, she gets this slight grin on her face that says: 'Yeah, I'm kind of a big deal, Mom.'"