KIDS
May 13, 2014

Mother's Little Helper

If you want your children to clean up, try enlisting them as helpers, rather than asking them to help. It makes a difference.

Young children usually start out feeling very good about cleaning up — it makes them feel adult and important. But somewhere along the line, mother's little helper often becomes resistant, and getting children to put down their iPads and help out around the house can seem like more trouble than it's worth.

What happens? The difference between a child's being willing or unwilling to help may be the result of the way in which parents ask, a new study finds. When parents ask using a noun (“Won't you be my helper?”) rather than a verb (“Please help clean up”), children are more likely to cooperate.

While they played, the scientists provided four opportunities for the kids to help them clean up a mess, open a container, put away toys, and pick up crayons. In each case, the children had to stop playing to help.

“We were inspired by previous research that showed if you describe behavior with nouns, it signals that the behavior in question reflects the person’s basic underlying character,” Christopher Bryan, one of the authors of the study, told TheDoctor. Research has shown most people want to do the right thing and be thought of as a good person and being considered a helper keys into that.

The investigators wanted to see how early this desire to be viewed as a good person begins to show itself. They chose to look at being helpful because it is one of the behaviors that adults try to teach children, and as every parents knows, it can also be really hard to get kids to do.

In two experiments with about 150 three- to six-year-olds, an investigator began by talking to the kids about helping. In one study, helping was referred to with a verb: “Some children choose to help.” In the other, it was referred to with a noun: “Some children choose to be helpers.”

As the children played, they had four opportunities to help clean up a mess, open a container, put away toys, and pick up crayons. In each case, the children had to stop playing to help. The researchers also recorded how often a child chose to help when helping was never mentioned.

Children who had been asked to be a “helper” helped significantly more than those who were simply asked to help. When researchers talked to the kids about helping, using verb wording, the children didn't help any more than when helping was never brought up. “When I ask my 3-year-old, “Do you want to come and be my helper?” anecdotally, I find that works pretty well,” Bryan said.

But this noun wording strategy works best when it is related to something that the child has control over, like helping, as opposed to a skill such as art, Bryan adds. For example, asking a child if they want to be a chef as opposed to asking if they want to cook, is not the same as asking if he or she wants to be a helper or to help.

The message for parents is that harnessing your child's desire to be thought well of is likely to be a better way to get them to do what you want than threatening or nagging them.

The study was published online recently in Child Development.

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