If you’re having trouble getting your kids to clean up their messes, try changing the words you use.
A recent study shows that using nouns instead of verbs has a positive impact on a child’s response to an adult’s request for help. Why? Because using nouns affects a child’s sense of identity. Using verbs, such as the word “helping,” does very little to invoke identity. But rewording the same request to include a noun—for example, using a phrase such as “being a helper”— appeals to a child’s sense of who they are and how they see themselves. This simple rewording can yield a very different (and positive) result.
Researchers worked with 150 preschoolers ages 3-6. The kids were allowed to play with toys, and were then provided opportunities to help a researcher pick up a mess, clean up spilled crayons, open containers, or put away toys. Each opportunity would require the child to stop playing in order to assist the adult.
The children were divided into three groups. In the first group, a researcher talked to the children about helping, using it as a verb (“some children choose to help”) before letting them play with the toys. In the second group, the researcher replaced verbs with nouns and talked about being a helper (“some children choose to be helpers”). The third (baseline) group was allowed to play without hearing any discussion about helping or being a helper.
When given the opportunity to stop playing with toys in order to help the researcher, the group with whom the verb form of helping was discussed were no more responsive than the baseline group. Not a lot of cooperation, in other words. Sound familiar?
Remarkably, the group who had heard about being helpers responded to requests of researchers in a significantly more positive way than the other two groups. What does this 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.”
In short, children who are taught to think positively of themselves as helpers are far more likely to help clean up than children who just see helping to clean up as an unpleasant activity. So encourage your kids to think of themselves as helpers and let me know if you see any positive results.
Next week I’ll take this a step further and discuss how parents and teachers can use the findings of this study to help motivate kids with learning challenges.