Applying IKEA Techniques to Empower Your Kids and Maybe Even Make them Happier

The “IKEA effect” is a term used by Harvard researchers in a working paper to describe the idea that when someone builds something themselves they often overvalue whatever that may be.

If you’ve ever bought something from the Swedish furniture maker, you know there is always some assembly required. Forget the fact that their instructions don’t have words, it feels good when you complete whatever particle board beauty you pieced together.

As a father, I see this in my kids all the time. Building a stack of blocks on her own makes my toddlers’s eyes grow with pride. Following the directions and building a Lincoln Logs cabin for the first time does the same thing for my almost six-year-old son.

There is value in creating something, and there is also something empowering when we can control our environment and build something.

So in reading some of this, I wondered if I could somehow experiment with this IKEA effect and get my kids to contribute with house chores. More on that upon implementation, but we do offer a coin system that rewards good choices. And I have used these as incentive to help put dishes and toys away.

Yes, house chores. Ug. But doesn’t it feel good upon completion? Isn’t there a sense of empowerment that goes with tidying our environment? I know my tendency can be to put off house work while I’m hanging around with the kids. With two full-time working parents, it’s easy to want to enjoy hanging out with them and not spending our time together cleaning. But maybe I’m actually doing them a disservice?

Even in early childhood education classes, they encourage parents to put away toys with really young children in the room, so they understand that this is part of a task and not taken care of by some magical fairy in the night.

Over the summer the summer, I recall visiting with my brother, sister-in-law and their one year old. My niece went to hand her mom something–maybe a napkin or sampled food or something–and was denied. Nope. It was like I’m not going to take this napkin/food from you, just to set it on the table for you. You can set it on the table yourself. Empowerment.

A study of nursing home residents showed significant health benefits from simply giving residents a houseplant to care for. One group of residents were told they were to decide where to put the plant and when to water it. Another group were given house plants but were told the nursing staff would take care of it. Skim this summary of Ellen Langer’s Counter Clockwise chapter one to find out more.

As a father who has a strong tendency to want to help and fix other’s problems, it’s extremely difficult to see my kids struggle at something. But remembering the IKEA effect helps reinforce this simple sign from The Minnesota Children’s Museum:

miss the target

As mom always said, “God helps those who help themselves.” He likes to empower us, too.

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