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Learn the secret word that will get your preschooler to help clean up

April 30, 2014 at 12:07 AM ET

Nursery with toys
Sorokopud Alexander
Want children to help around the house? Learn the way to ask them that's 29 percent more effective, according to research.

Getting kids to put down the toys and help out around the house can feel like a thankless battle. But new research suggests a surprisingly simple solution: just change the way you talk about helping. The study, published today in the journal Child Development, found that adults’ language can have a dramatic effect on a child’s willingness to lend a hand.  

For the experiment, researchers took almost 150 children and divided them into groups. The first group was told about helping using a noun: “Some children are helpers.” The second group heard about helping using verb words: “Some children choose to help.” The third group never heard a talk about helping. Next, the children got to play and while they were playing, researchers created four different opportunities for them to help the experimenter: put away toys, open a container, clean a mess and pick up spilled crayons.

Children who heard helping described as a noun (i.e. “some children are helpers”) were 29% more likely to help the experimenter than children who heard helping described as a verb (“i.e. “helping.”) In fact, kids who heard about helping as a verb didn’t help any more than kids who never heard a talk about helping at all. 

“What we’re finding is that this small difference can have a substantial effect on how helpful kids choose to be when being asked to do mundane chores,” said Dr. Christopher Bryan, lead author of the study.

What's the magic behind this subtle change in language? Bryan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, says that it may have to do with a child’s identity. Basically, when you use noun-words like “helper” you invite the child to see themselves as someone good. “People of all ages care about being a good person and being a good person means behaving like a good person,” he says, “so when you frame behaviors as being representative of who you are, people will use those opportunities to show they are a good person.”

Although this may seem like a stretch for preschoolers, research has shown that kids of that age have already developed a sense of self and even a concept of their own “goodness.”

Word choice also affects behavior in adults, explained Bryan. A previous study , for example, found that adults who completed a survey about voting were more likely to head to the polls if the survey referred to voting as a noun (i.e. “how important is it to be a voter?”) vs. verb wording (i.e. how important is it to vote?”).

Bryan has found that the noun wording works like a charm with his own children: “If I want my son to help me empty the dishwasher I say ‘Henry, do you want to come and be my helper?’”

But he warns parents not to take this trick too far. Children’s sense of identity is fragile and it’s important to make sure that you are only encouraging them in areas that are related to effort — not talent. “I try to make sure that I don't use it to describe things that my kid has no control over,” he said. Existing research, for example, found that kids who heard about “being a good drawer” versus “drawing” were more likely to avoid drawing after they experienced failure.

Both studies demonstrate that language can be a powerful motivator or deterrent for kids at this formative stage. “Preschool-aged children are already thinking on some level about the kind of person they are and taking an active role in shaping that identity,” explain Bryan and colleagues in their paper. And with the right word choices, you can help them along the way — or rather, you can be a helper.

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