Mister Rogers famously told children to “look for the helpers” ― the people in this world who work to assist others and spread goodness, even (or especially) in challenging times.
But you don’t have to be a grown-up to be a helper. Kids can play this role too. In fact, learning to be a helper from a young age is one way children thrive and develop into adults who want to make the world a better place.
“Helping others builds character, self-confidence, responsibility, selflessness, and altruism,” said Hillary Kimbley, a pediatric psychologist at Children’s Health in Dallas. “Helping others strengthens awareness of others’ needs and broadens one’s view and understanding of their world and areas of need. Helping others teaches good citizenry. Helping others helps boost mood. Helping others helps kids build and refine personal skills.”
So how can parents teach their children to be citizens who help others? Below, experts share their advice for raising “helpers” in today’s world.
Help them play to their strengths.
“We all have unique personal life experiences that equip us to teach and help others in different ways,” said Rupa Mehta, founder of Subject of Self, a free social-emotional learning curriculum for kids. “Help can come in many forms, from empathizing, to generating ideas to solve a problem, to pitching in on a household chore.”
Parents should help their children recognize the unique ways they can help, and tailor helping opportunities to their interests. Show how a child’s life experience is valuable in a given helping scenario.
“For example, if your 4-year-old is obsessed with arranging his trucks in a perfectly straight line across the living room that no one else is allowed to interfere with, you can reference his impressive attention to detail and ask for his help putting stamps in the top right corner of your pile of holiday cards,” Mehta said.
“If your child has an interest in cooking, as a small child they can consult as you create a grocery shopping list,” she added. “As an older child, they can help put groceries away. As a teenager, they can do food prep like chopping vegetables and can begin to cook simple meals for themselves.”
“Some degree of positive reinforcement is beneficial, but more along the lines of ‘It feels good to be helper, doesn’t it?’ as opposed to ‘You’re the best sock sorter.’”
Identify developmentally appropriate tasks.
“In general, it is important to make sure helping tasks are developmentally appropriate,” Kimbley said.
For toddlers and preschoolers, she recommended tasks like picking up toys, wiping spills, putting books back on the shelf or helping with the search for a missing pair of shoes. Parents can also use playtime to act out being a helper, and read them children’s books about helping.
School-aged children can take on household chores like putting away laundry, raking leaves and loading the dishwasher. They may also find helping opportunities outside the home.
“Volunteer within the community,” Kimbley advised. “Give to a local charity. Clean up in school or be a teacher’s helper.”
As children get older, they can continue to build on the helping skills they’ve learned, said Elanna Yalow, chief academic officer of KinderCare Learning Centers.
“With the ability to remember and work through multiple-step instructions, along with a growing sense of independence and responsibility, children 10 and up are ready and empowered to tackle complex activities,” she noted, pointing to tasks like doing their own laundry, cleaning the bathroom, washing windows, changing sheets, making simple meals and tutoring younger students.
Offer praise and encouragement.
Parents should be sure to recognize when their children are making an effort to help others.
“Children love being praised by the ones who care for them,” said educator and children’s book author Casey Rislov. “Cheer them on through all stages.”
If your child is helping you with something, express your gratitude and emphasize that their help made you feel good. Talk about their feelings as well.
“Some degree of positive reinforcement is beneficial, but more along the lines of ‘It feels good to be helper, doesn’t it?’ as opposed to ‘You’re the best sock sorter,’” said Susan Groner, an author and founder of The Parenting Mentor. “We want to encourage our children to recognize their own positive feelings rather than relying on external approval or rewards.”
Model being a helper.
“Be a good role model,” Kimbley said. “Kids are always watching! The more that kids observe a caregiver helping, the more likely they are to imitate that behavior.”
Parents have the power to make helping others a norm and an expectation for their children. In addition to demonstrating what it looks like to be a helper, pursue opportunities to serve the community together as a family unit.
“Look for opportunities to perform random acts of kindness in front of your kids and encourage them to do the same,” Groner said. “Help someone cross the street, hold open a door, say something nice to a stranger. Without making it too big a deal, talk about what it felt like to do something nice and unexpected.”
Make it fun.
“Make it enjoyable,” Yalow advised. “No one likes a to-do list, but there is often satisfaction in a job well done or even the process. Put on music and do it along with them.”
There are many ways to get creative and bring fun to the experience of helping others. Parents can turn a helping task into a game, or make up a song about helping to sing while engaged in the activity. They can also brainstorm with their kids to set tangible goals, or make a helping “bucket list” to make it feel more like an adventure.
“Celebrate if the task took a bit of time to learn and they mastered it ― or if it seemed like something they did not want to do, but now realize that it helps and it is important,” Rislov said. “Keeping life fun and interesting helps keep children interested and excited. Celebrations can be simple, from a ‘Yeah, you did it,’ to ‘Hey, let’s celebrate over a healthy treat,’ to ‘Wow, you’ve done a lot to help this week, so let’s spend some time together doing your favorite activity.’”
Emphasize connection with others.
Parents should talk about the ways that being a helper enhances others’ lives ― from collecting food for people in need to finding a friend’s lost toy to refilling the soap in the bathroom so everyone can keep their hands clean. Point out the people whose jobs involve helping their communities, like nurses and garbage collectors.
“Approaching it from a team perspective can help create the positive attitude,” Rislov said. “If the chores are varied and fit the child’s age, they will feel self-accomplishment and be proud they are helping everyone in their environment.”
Helping people can also foster a sense of empathy and connection with others.
“It’s easy to think of ‘helping’ in relation to household chores, but around age 8 or 9, sometimes younger, children can work with friends or family members on a group project to help one family or their community,” Yalow said. “By making it a group effort, children develop their socialization and communication skills, get creative, and build stronger friendships around a common purpose, all while learning about the gratification of making a difference in someone else’s life.”
Help them feel empowered.
“When it comes to encouraging the ‘helper’ in your child, power-sharing is really important,” Mehta noted. “We ultimately want kids to take some level of responsibility, and for that, they need to feel both respected and empowered. They want to be treated fairly, and they want opportunities to have a voice. Allow them to take the lead with your guidance.”
When you give them chores, don’t frame it as a punishment, or as an indication that you don’t want to take care of the work yourself. Rather, make it clear it’s a show of trust in your child’s abilities, and a sign of how much you value their contribution. Allow them to have some agency in picking which chores they want to take over.
“Give them choices,” Yalow said. “Encouraging children to make choices within the guidelines you set supports their growing independence and makes it more fun for them, since they get to own their decision and do something they are interested in.”
Be patient and flexible.
“It takes patience to allow kids the time to try to figure out something that is challenging, and it takes confidence in their ability to persevere and tolerate frustration,” Yalow said, noting that it takes time to master the skills involved in household chores and volunteer activities.
It’s also helpful to show patience and flexibility on the days when they simply don’t feel like helping, she added. This encourages them to develop a mindset of helping because they want to, not because they have to.
Kids who are more resistant to helping overall may need more time, so focus on the end goal.
“Remember that helping is a skill to be developed,” Kimbley advised. “Provide proper supervision and scaffolding when teaching kids how to help others. It is important to teach youth when to seek help for themselves. It is OK to ask for help as much as it is to provide help to others. It is important to teach and develop healthy helping boundaries, e.g., sometimes a problem might be too hard to help with.”
“Teach kids not to expect something in return. Try to find ways to help others without seeking or expecting recognition or resources in return.”
Let them make mistakes.
Making mistakes gives children the opportunity to face adversity, learn and grow into more capable adults. Yalow touted the educational value of firsthand experience.
“Allow your child to take some risks,” she said. “Don’t automatically assume that they can’t do something. Using the stove, for example, is something kids eventually need to learn how to do safely, not just be kept away from.”
Yalow also recommended resisting the urge to jump in and fix things if they go wrong. Instead, support kids as they learn to solve problems and take responsibility for the results of their actions.
“Teach children to clean up their own messes, from a spill to a missing homework assignment, and trust in their ability to find solutions to the messes they make,” she said. “Sure, it might be a bit frustrating when your child spills water all over the floor when ‘giving the doggy a drink,’ but every little mishap is also a chance for young children to learn to do it themselves, build their skills, and support their growing independence.”
Reflect on helping.
“A practical tip to help your child personally connect to the ‘helper’ role is to encourage them to reflect on their experiences of helping,” Mehta said. She suggested some reflection prompts: How did you feel before you helped them? How did you feel after? How do you think they felt before they received your help? How do you think they felt after? What’s another way you could help them in the future?
Processing the experience of helping others can help kids understand the power of helping and feel prepared to do it again in the future. Parents should discuss the positive effects of helping others for the sake of helping others.
“Teach kids not to expect something in return,” Kimbley said. “Try to find ways to help others without seeking or expecting recognition or resources in return. Instill that even if we don’t get a ‘thank you’ or anything in return, it is still OK to help.”
This story is part of a HuffPost Parents project called “I See Me,” a series for parents and kids on the power of representation. We know how important it is for kids to see people who look like them on the biggest stages, including politics, sports, entertainment and beyond. Throughout February, we’ll explore the importance of representation in teaching kids about difference, acceptance, privilege and standing up for others.