Convincing your kid to pick up his toys may seem like an impossible feat, but according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Child Development, using one simple word will motivate children to do their chores: “helper.”
The study, conducted jointly by researchers at the University of California, San Diego; the University of Washington; and Stanford University, included about 150 children aged 3 to 6.Researchers divided the children into two groups and talked to each one about helping. In one group, helping was referred to with a verb — researchers said things like “Some children choose to help” and “How much would you like to help?” In the other, helping was referred to with a noun — "Some children choose to be helpers" and “You could be a helper if someone has a job for you.”
While the kids played with toys, the researchers occasionally interrupted to ask them to clean up a mess, open the lid of a storage bin for a teacher, put away their toys, or pick up crayons. Turns out the kids in the “noun” group were 22 to 29 percent more likely to help than those in the “verb” group.
“When you use the noun ‘helper’ — a description that points to a child’s basic character and identity — they’re more motivated to prove that it’s true," lead study author Christopher J. Bryan, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the UC San Diego, tells Yahoo Shine. “There’s also an aspirational element. Helping is something kids know they ‘should’ do, so it makes them feel good about living up to an ideal.”
It’s an interesting motivational tactic in light of news that Spain is considering adopting a child protection bill that would obligate kids under the age of 18 to help out more around the house, according to a story published this week by the BBC. The bill also states that kids should play an active role in family life, “showing respect for their parents and siblings.”
And while it’s currently unclear if the law will be passed (and the Spanish website the Local reports that the bill doesn't actually specify penalties for children who don't follow the requirements), according to Bryan, its effectiveness is questionable. “If the law serves as basic guidelines for how people should behave in society, that could be a good thing,” he says. “Classic research conducted by Stanford found that subtle pressure could sway kids into doing the right thing.” However, flat-out forcing children to wash dishes or vacuum could undermine their motivation. "If kids believe they'll be punished if they don't help, they may do so," says Bryan, "but their hearts won't be in it."