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Parental Guidance and Children’s Development of Collaborative Initiative: Cultural Contexts of Children’s Prosocial Development

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Two studies examined how mothers of 2- to 3-year-olds and 6- to 7-year-olds from a US Mexican-heritage community and a middle-class European American community support children’s prosocial helping and development of collaborative initiative in work at home. Together, the studies aim to explain a ‘developmental puzzle’ suggested by taking into account separate literatures on young children’s household work contributions: Toddlers in many communities seem to be interested in helping and taking part in the ongoing activities of the world around them. Yet, at older ages middle-class European American children seem to help minimally and seldom with initiative whereas US Mexican-heritage children commonly contribute extensively and with initiative in work at home.

Findings in both studies were based on interviews with 29 mothers in each community (20 with a child age 2-3, and 9 with a child age 6-7). Study 1 confirmed this ‘developmental puzzle’, and showed that more US Mexican-heritage 2- to 3-year-olds and 6- to 7-year-olds helped under their own initiative than European American children at these ages. Study 2 showed that most US Mexican-heritage mothers involved their 2- to 3-year-old children collaboratively in shared work, whereas more middle-class European American mothers often avoided their 2- to 3-year-olds’ involvement all together. Mothers’ reported developmental theories regarding children’s learning and motivation in work at home provided clear rationales for mothers’ approaches in each community.

The findings suggest that children’s initiative and prosocial helping are encouraged developmentally when children are given meaningful access and opportunities to share work with others at home. Together, the studies challenge and extend current theory and contribute new cultural and analytic perspectives to developmental research on children’s prosocial development.

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