Encouraging young children “to help” rather than asking them to “be helpers” can help instill the character trait of persistence as they struggle to work through challenging daily tasks, according to a new study by researchers at New York University.

The team found that using verbs to talk about actions, such as encouraging children to help, read, and paint, may help increase resilience following any setbacks they might experience rather than using nouns to talk about identities; for example, asking them to be helpers, readers, or artists.

The findings, published in the journal Child Development, differ from those of a 2014 study which suggested that asking children to “be helpers” instead of “to help” subsequently led them to help more.

The difference between the 2014 work and the new study, however, is that the latter tested what happened after children experienced setbacks while trying to help, underscoring how language choice is linked to children’s perseverance.

“The new research shows how subtle features of language can shape child behavior in ways not previously understood,” said Dr. Marjorie Rhodes, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the senior author of the study.

“In particular, using verbs to talk to children about behavior — such as ‘you can help’ — can lead to more determination following setbacks than using nouns to talk about identities — for instance, ‘you can be a helper’.”

On the other hand, the 2014 paper found that asking children ages 4 to 5 to “be helpers” instead of “to help” subsequently led them to help with more tasks, such as picking up crayons that had fallen on the floor or assisting someone in opening a box that was stuck.

However, the NYU findings showed that this effect backfires after children experienced difficulty while trying to be helpful.

In a series of experiments, 4- and 5-year old children were asked either to “be helpers” or “to help,” and then were given the opportunity to assist the researcher in cleaning up some toys.

In this case, the situation was designed so that children would experience difficulties while they tried to help: for example, when they tried to pick up a box to move it to a shelf, the contents (due to a faulty box) spilled all over the floor — a problematic outcome similar to those we often experience in everyday life.

The experiment continued with children getting three more opportunities to help the researcher. Overall, children who had originally been asked “to help” were more resilient after the setback than those asked to “be helpers.”

For example, after the setbacks, children who were asked “to help” were just as likely to keep assisting in challenging situations that benefited only the experimenter as they were in easy situations that also benefited themselves. On the other hand, children asked “to be helpers” rarely helped in the challenging situations that benefited the experimenter. They did so only when it was easy and also benefited themselves.

“This research shows how talking to children about actions they can take — in this case, that they can do helpful things — can encourage more persistence following setbacks than talking to children about identities that they can take on,” says Foster-Hanson.

The paper’s other authors included Emily Foster-Hanson, an NYU doctoral student who led the study, as well as Dr. Andrei Cimpian, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology, and Rachel Leshin, an NYU doctoral student.

Source: New York University