"Me Do It!"
By Pam Leo, Family Literacy Activist

 “It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught your children to do for themselves, that will make them successful human beings.” - Ann Landers

How often do we hear the words, “Me do it!” or “I can do it myself!”? Our children watch everything we do and no matter how young they are, they want to do everything we do. There was a time when children “helping” was a way of life. Children helped their parents in the garden, helped bring in the wood, gathered the eggs, knitted their own socks and helped churn the milk into butter. Children were considered assets to the family. This is no longer the case. Today’s children usually cannot help their parents with their jobs. Sadly, our society now sees children as liabilities because having children interferes with their parents’ availability to work outside the home.

Children need to be reinstated to their rightful position as assets to the family if they are to have the high self-esteem that builds resilience. We often use the words self-esteem and self-worth interchangeably, as if they mean the same thing, but they are actually quite different. I define self-worth as the way we believe we deserve to be treated. Children always believe they deserve how we treat them. If we treat them lovingly, they believe they are lovable. If we treat them badly, they believe they are bad. Children behave what they believe. Self-esteem is what we believe about how capable, competent and valued we are. The more we let children help, the more capable they become and the more valued they feel.

It’s not easy for adults to “let” children help. Children have a similar “catch 22” that adults have. We can’t get a job if we have no experience but we can’t get experience unless someone will give us a job. We often don’t allow children to do things because they don’t know how, but they can’t learn how unless we let them help. Tasks that we consider chores, children see as play. Adults tend to be product-oriented, while children are process-oriented. They want to break the egg and stir the batter, yet they often don’t even care about eating the muffins after they are baked. Adults, on the other hand are deeply focused on the end product, we care about the muffins.

Many parents attempt to teach responsibility by assigning chores. Did you, or any child you have ever known, enjoy doing chores? Why are children so resistant to doing their chores? My experience of children is what they want most is to be with us and to do what we do. So it is not surprising that they balk at being sent off to
do their chores. Yet, if we say the only magic word I know of, “Let’s rake the leaves, pick up the toys or bring in some wood,” they are usually happy to join us. When I was a family child care provider, we heated with wood. Every fall when the wood was delivered it had to be stacked. Even the two-year-olds I cared for wanted to use their big muscles and carry wood. Children naturally want, need and can do meaningful work.

Letting children help is a win-win-win. By working with us, children get the connection time that they need, they become competent, which builds their self-esteem and we get the task done. The key to letting children help is developing a willingness to give up “perfect.” It’s easier and quicker to do it ourselves because we get it right the first time, every time. Skill comes only with practice. I like to think of letting children help as creating opportunities for success. When their demand to “do it myself” turns into “I did it!” Everybody wins!

The book I chose to feature about helping is, I Can Help, by David Hyde Costello. I love this book because it shows that everyone, from the smallest sunbird to the tallest giraffe, can be helpful. I also love how this simple children’s story validates children’s innate desire to be able to do things for themselves and for others. It can also inspire adults to think about more ways children can be helpful in their family and in their community.

I have two copies of I Can Help. One is a Raising Readers edition and it has suggestions in the back to help parents and caregivers extend the idea of being helpful into children’s real lives. It suggests we talk about times they have been helpful. For example,“ I noticed that you helped your baby brother get the toy he couldn’t reach, just like gorilla helped giraffe by pulling down the branch.” We can also talk about helpers in the community, like police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, teachers and librarians. The other copy is a PJ Library edition and it has notes in the front of the book that define what it means for a child to become a “mensch,” the Yiddish word for “a good, helpful person, of honor and integrity, worthy of our admiration.”
There is no one-word English translation for mensch. Although we may not use the word mensch, we all want our children to grow up to become a mensch kind of person. Letting children help, so they can learn how to do things for themselves and to become helpful to others, is one of the fundamental ways we teach them empathy, compassion, kindness and generosity. Children are born with the need to be a valued part of their family and their community. Reading books like, I Can Help, and then letting them help, turns reading time into a time for instilling values as well as a time for connection and strengthening our bond. Since children behave what they believe, let’s teach them to believe, “I can help.” The more things children can do, the higher their self-esteem will be. The higher their self-esteem, the more resilient they will be. “We can’t protect our children from the inevitable stresses and losses that are part of living, but we can help build their boat strong enough to weather the storms of life.”

Pam Leo, is a family literacy activist, the author of Connection Parenting, and a new poem, Please Read To Me. Her enduring love of children's books, her passion for literacy, and her commitment to empowering parents, are combined in her new role as the founder of the Book Fairy Pantry Project, whose mission is "No Child With No Books," because "Books change children's lives... For good."