Want a young child to 'help' or 'be a helper'? Choice of words matters

April 30, 2014
A small child in Mumbai, with a shaved head, eating bread with her hand. Credit: Wen-Yan King/Wikipedia

How do you get a preschooler to help with chores and other household tasks? A new study suggests that adults' word choice can make a big difference.

The study, by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, the University of Washington, and Stanford University, appears in the journal Child Development.

The researchers carried out two experiments with about one hundred and fifty 3- to 6-year-olds from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds who came from middle- to upper-middle-class homes. In both experiments, an adult experimenter began by talking to about helping. The only difference between the two studies was that in one, helping was referred to with a verb (e.g., "Some children choose to help"), while in the other, it was referred to with a noun (e.g., "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 that had spilled on the floor. In each case, the children had to stop playing to help.

The researchers also gathered baseline data, looking at to what extent a child chose to help the experimenter when helping was never mentioned.

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 never brought up 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, San Diego, 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."

Explore further: Young children may go above and beyond when helping adults

More information: Citation: Child Development (2014) "Helping" Versus "Being a Helper": Invoking the Self to Increase Helping in Young Children, by Bryan, CJ (University of California, San Diego), Master, A (University of Washington), and Walton, GM (Stanford University).

Related Stories

Young children may go above and beyond when helping adults

February 12, 2013

Even very young children understand that adults don't always know best. When it comes to helping, 3-year-olds may ignore an adult's specific request for an unhelpful item and go out of their way to bring something more useful, ...

Age changes how young children read social cues

November 15, 2013

From infancy, children learn by watching and imitating adults. Even when adults show them how to open a latch or solve a puzzle, for example, children use social cues to figure out what actions are important. But children ...

Sound trumps meaning in first language learning

March 12, 2014

A new study reveals that four-to-seven-year-old children rely on the sounds of new nouns more than on their meaning when assigning them to noun classes, even though the meaning is more predictive of noun class in the adult ...

Recommended for you

First language wires brain for later language-learning

December 1, 2015

You may believe that you have forgotten the Chinese you spoke as a child, but your brain hasn't. Moreover, that "forgotten" first language may well influence what goes on in your brain when you speak English or French today.

Anxiety can kill your social status

December 1, 2015

Neuroscientists at EPFL identify a brain region that links anxious temperament to low social status. The researchers were able to tweak social hierarchy in animals by using vitamin B3.

Watching eyes prevent littering

December 1, 2015

People are less likely to drop litter if it has printed eyes on it, researchers at Newcastle University, UK, have found. An image of watching eyes reduced the odds of littering by around two thirds.

How can I tell if she's lying?

November 27, 2015

Sarcasm, white lies and teasing can be difficult to identify for those with certain disorders – new video inventory developed at McGill may help


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.