When there’s an infant in the house, every mom can use an extra helping hand. When the newborn comes home to a big brother or sister, the older sibling is likely to want to help but may need a little prodding from time to time. A team of psychologists says choosing the right word when asking for help makes a difference.

The psychologists, from the University of Washington, Stanford University, and the University of California in San Diego, used three different ways of suggesting the desire for help from 150 kids between 3 and 6 years of age. The research team then watched the children during play to determine which kids were the most helpful.

The two-part study included children from a broad spectrum of the US demographic. The children came from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds and were all from the middle- to upper-middle-class socioeconomic brackets.

Part 1: Discussion
The children were divided into three groups, two of which heard a discussion of help. The word “help” was presented in different ways to each group:

  • One group heard the word as a verb: “Some children choose to help.”
  • One group heard the word as a noun: “Some children choose to be helpers.”
  • One group heard a discussion with no mention of the word help.

Part 2: Play
After the discussions, all the children were given time to play with toys. At four points during playtime, the adult monitor presented the opportunity to help but didn’t ask for it specifically while:

  • Picking up a mess
  • Opening a container
  • Putting toys away
  • Picking up crayons spilled on the floor

All the children were observed during the play session. Each child’s response to the adult’s need for help was noted. The research team, led by Christopher J. Bryan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, noted two distinct responses to the opportunity to help:

  • Those hearing the noun (helper) were significantly more likely than the others to volunteer their help.
  • Those hearing the verb (help) and those who heard no mention of the word were less likely to volunteer their help; the help rate was about the same in both groups.

New mothers may get a better response when asking older siblings to be the helper rather than asking them to help. Asking the child to be the toy-keeper rather than asking him to pick up the toys may result in a tidier room. Asking someone to be the dirty-clothes boss may work better than asking someone to pick up the dirty clothes.

Bryan says, “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.”

Source: Bridgman, Anne. “Want a Young Child to “Help” or “Be a Helper”? Word Choice Matters.” UC San Diego News Center. Regents of the University of California. Apr 30, 2014. Web. May 8, 2014.

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