“Go ask your teacher for help,” I told my daughter again. For a whole grading period, she had been struggling with long division. I would try my best to explain a problem but I couldn’t figure out the method they were using in class. Yet my daughter continued to resist talking with her teacher. She was worried about how it would look if she asked for help. ‘Helper’ is a category that very young children identify with in a positive way. But psychologist Jellie Sierksma has found that children between the ages of 4-6 begin making negative assumptions about those who receive help. They infer that those receiving help are less smart than those who do not need help. And since they want to be seen as smart, they may avoid asking for help even when they need it.
Categorizing things is an important developmental skill. From an early age, children sort things based on binary categories: big or little, soft or hard, weak or strong. This is part of how they make sense of the world around them, which is one aspect of spiritual meaning-making.
Problems arise when some categorizations become associated with negative cultural values. Hierarchical thinking, in which one side of a binary has greater value than the other side, can affect children’s sense of self-worth and create social divisions. For example, if being big is valued more than being little, a small child can feel as if they don’t matter and society may view them as inferior to adults.
In the case of children’s refusal to ask for help, the likely cause is a child’s learned association of dependence with weakness or stupidity, in contrast with independence as strength and intelligence. Children may ask family members for help in private but resist seeking help from others to avoid negative social perceptions. They may also be tempted to ridicule themselves or others for falling into negatively valued categories like needing help.
Parents can teach children the spiritual value of asking for help and counter negative cultural views of dependency in two ways:
Model helping and being helped. Show children that both behaviors are necessary and beneficial. Share your expertise in a particular area with a friend in need, and also ask for help from a neighbor when you need to complete a task outside your areas of expertise. Such modeling destigmatizes helping and affirms interdependence as a value.
Make it safe for your child to fail. When your child doesn’t understand something or does something incorrectly, acknowledge the struggle and encourage them to try again with your help. Guide them through a process of self-reflection focusing on what they did well and invite them to pose questions that will help them figure out what went wrong. Create an “excellent question’ award that celebrates your child’s willingness to ask for help when stuck.