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Like adults, children want to feel needed. Expect their help, ask their viewpoints, and be aware of special talents

``Aren't you glad you have us, Mom?'' my four-year-old asked one morning. ``Who else would pick up all these toys?'' I smiled. It had apparently never occurred to my son that if I didn't have preschoolers, I wouldn't have a toy-strewn living room either. But I was glad he hadn't made the connection. Our children felt needed, and that was fine with me.

One of the nicest things parents can do for their children is to make them feel an essential part of the family structure. Knowing that Mom and Dad ``couldn't get along without me'' fosters a strong self-image in even a young child, and encourages him to look for ways of helping others.

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How do parents build a strong self-image in a child? How do we let him know that he is a special and important member of the family?

First, expect his help -- right from the start. Preschoolers are quite capable of fetching objects for parents, picking up toys, and even drying dishes with supervision -- and are usually delighted at the chance to try. Thus the chore habit becomes a natural routine and can be expanded as children grow. If a youngster wonders why he has to take out the garbage or sort laundry, the answer is simple and matter-of-fact: ``We're a family. We help each other.'' Such an attitude fosters loyalty, a sense of mutual purpose -- and feelings of self-worth.

Also, ask for his viewpoint -- and listen to it. Because young children regard adults as all-knowing and completely competent, they are often astonished and gratified when we reveal a need for their input. I often lost my car keys, and one day I asked the children how I could solve this dilemma. They discussed it very seriously among themselves, and suggested that a hook for the keys be hung in the kitchen. I took their advice, stopped losing my keys, and enjoyed overhearing the comment they made to a playmate: ``Our mom has problems sometimes, but we help her out.''

Be aware, too, of children's special talents and how they can be incorporated into the household. One of our sons is adept at math, and my husband often asks his help in figuring how many roof tiles or gallons of paint we should buy, or how long it will take us to drive somewhere. And when another child demonstrated an unexpected ``green thumb,'' we pressed her into service in our vegetable garden. The evening she served her first home-grown tomatoes, cheeks flushed with pride, was a high point for all of us.

Don't forget to compliment and appreciate. Unfortunately, we parents often tend to comment on our children's negative behavior while ignoring the nice things they do. But while it isn't necessary to go overboard on praise, youngsters do need to know that we appreciate their efforts. An occasional ``thank you'' or ``I appreciate that, honey'' goes a long way toward encouraging more of the same behavior.

It's nice to compliment in front of others, too. ``I don't know what I'd do without Tommy,'' one mother told me, within deliberate earshot of her five-year-old. ``He's been such a help with the new baby.'' Tommy positively glowed and, I noticed, raced to round up the baby's things when it was time to leave.

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