Too much domestic help can leave children feeling helpless
A maid is a luxury to be enjoyed if you have one and envied if you don't: with someone to do the boring chores around the home, parents have more time to enjoy being with their children, so everybody wins. Or do they?
Many children brought up in families with a maid or nanny are, it seems, so reliant on their home help that they become incapable of doing the most basic tasks for themselves.
"I see too many maids who are frightened not to cater for the little ones' every demand," says Claire, 29, an expatriate living in Abu Dhabi. "They want to be carried around everywhere at the age of three or four, or want to be hand-fed."
Even older children can lack basic skills. According to one primary schoolteacher in Abu Dhabi, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the "vast majority" of children cannot do the simplest things by themselves.
"I work with 10 to 12-year-olds," she says, "and most of them happily admit that they never have to do anything at all around the house at home. Some of them can't even properly dress themselves after PE or swimming without help. When asked to tidy up after themselves when they've had lunch, they stare at spilt rice or breadcrumbs like it will bite them and then come and ask me, 'Miss, how do I clean that?' It worries me that these kids are not learning to take care of themselves in the most basic way."
This is not just a nuisance for teachers. By failing to instil basic life skills in their children, parents are depriving them of an important element of their social development, according to Naeema Jiwani, a child development psychologist at the Human Relations Institute in Dubai (www.hridubai.com).
"Doing minor chores helps a child to develop a sense of independence and responsibility, neither of which can be taken for granted. Unless a child is positively encouraged to assume more responsibility through praise and encouragement, children will not tend to voluntarily help out."
Aside from preparing children for adult life, Jiwani believes that teaching our offspring domestic tasks can have other benefits.
"Household chores are a wonderful way for parents to shape and foster appropriate helpful behaviour for their children to engage in, even when they are absent," she says. "They are also a good way of spending quality time together."
It can, of course, be difficult to know where and when to start encouraging your child to be independent. Many parents assume that small children are incapable or will break or damage things, but Jiwani believes in getting them involved as young as possible.
"Right from when children are mobile between their first and second year of life they can be empowered to help around the house," she says, "whether it's helping to put their toys away after they've played with them, to prompting an older child to put their dish in the sink after they have finished a meal, right through to their older years when you can rely on them to set the table or do some babysitting or even help out in the kitchen with basic cooking tasks."
Teenagers can be given more advanced tasks, such as car-washing, taking out the rubbish and preparing meals.
All of that sounds wonderful, but it's not necessarily easy to achieve. Children are not naturally inclined to help around the house and many households have maids who are accustomed to doing everything for them.
For Jane, 45, an English expatriate and mother of four, the answer was simply not to hire a maid at all when she arrived in Abu Dhabi two years ago.
"I have no intention of getting a maid," she says. "My kids do the chores around the house and they see me doing the same. On this topic, I lead by example."
Jane has found that this decision has raised eyebrows. "A lot of people don't believe me when I tell them that I do my own housework," she says. "I am probably in the minority".
Of course, Jane acknowledges that often it can be quicker and easier for a parent to bypass the children and do things herself, but resists the temptation.
"I was more guilty of doing things for them at home than here," she says. "Moving here has been a real eye-opener for me; I have witnessed so many spoilt kids that it has pushed me the other way."
Domestic help can make life much easier, though, especially when both parents work. Jiwani is not opposed to families having maids.
"A child can significantly benefit from a well-rested, enthusiastic parent who looks forward to spending time with their child. Often, this is possible through a nanny home-help who acts as an extra pair of hands."
The answer, she says, is to lay down clear rules for everyone in the household.
"It is important for parents to be consistent in maintaining boundaries and not to get swayed by emotions, emotional blackmail or tantrums," she says. "Nannies should be cautioned not to be swayed by the children's pleas when crossing these boundaries and the children should be taught that they will not be able to manipulate their way around their nanny. It is the parents' responsibility to set the rules, stick by the rules and foster a sense of discipline in the house."
Claire agrees: "I would expect when hiring a maid or nanny that she should have the right skills to know when to say 'no' to a child, for all the right reasons such as not spoiling them and allowing them to develop their own motor skills and skills around the house."
This may be a surprise for a maid who has always been trained and encouraged to do everything for the children in previous jobs, so setting clear rules about what she is and is not required to do is important. Ultimately, a household with independent, capable children will provide an easier working environment for a maid than one where they are reliant on her for every need, so parents may well find that their strictures on this subject are welcomed.
And if the children resist? Perseverance is the key. The benefits of having useful, resourceful kids has to be worth a bit of grumbling.
- Start with small, simple tasks and praise your child each time he or she completes them. Move on to more advanced jobs as your children get older.
- Be consistent: have regular chores that you require your children to do as a matter of course. They will, over time, become a habit rather than a chore.
- Lead by example: treat your maid with courtesy and respect and insist that your children do likewise; let them see you doing some household tasks yourself.
- Explain to your maid what you expect your children to do for themselves and ask her not to do these jobs. If your maid has been used to doing everything for the family in a previous job, she may need some time to get used to the new regime. Be persistent but patient.
- Remember that your child may not do each task perfectly straight away. Don't give up just because he or she does not make a great job of it first time; practice makes perfect and with time you may be surprised by how much your child can accomplish.
- Ask your children's teachers what they expect the pupils to be able to do for themselves, and follow this through at home.
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