How do you get a young child to help with chores and other household tasks?
A new study suggests that choice of words can make a big difference.
Researchers carried out two experiments with about 150 children aged three to six from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds and from middle to upper middle class homes.
In both experiments, an adult began by talking to children about helping.
The only difference between the two studies was that in one helping was referred to with a verb as in “Some children choose to help”, while in the other it was referred to with a noun such as “Some children choose to be helpers”.
Then the children began playing with toys. While they were playing, the adult provided four opportunities for the youngsters to stop and help the experimenter to pick up a mess, open a container, put away toys and pick up crayons which spilled on the floor.
In each case, the children stopped playing to help.
Children who heard the noun wording (helper) helped significantly more than children who heard the verb wording (help).
When the experimenter talked to youngsters about helping, using verb wording, the children didn’t help any more than when the experimenter didn’t talk about helping at all.
“These findings suggest that parents and teachers can encourage young children to be more helpful by using nouns like helper instead of verbs like helping when making a request of a child,” says Christopher J. Bryan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California who worked on the study.
“Using the noun helper may send a signal that helping implies something positive about one’s identity, which may in turn motivate children to help more.”
The study, by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, the University of Washington, and Stanford University, appears in the journal Child Development.
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