Encouraging Your Child to Become a “Helper”Pop quiz: You walk into the living room and see toys and pillows strewn about. Which request is more likely to motivate a four-year-old child to put things back in order?

A: “Please help clean up this room.”
B: “Please be a helper and clean up this room.”

The answer? B.

In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Child Development, researchers asked children between the ages of three and six to perform a variety of tasks. Children who were asked to be “helpers” were significantly more responsive to requests than those who simply asked to “help.” This phenomenon is not limited to childhood. For example, in an earlier study by two of the same researchers, they discovered that adults are more likely to show up at the polls if they are told, “Be a voter.” The phrase “Go vote” simply wasn’t as motivating.

Why?

It’s a question of identity—and how language helps shape our self-concept. “Please help” and “Go vote” describe desired behaviors. But when you use phrases such as “Be a helper” or “Be a voter,” you are describing a person—and not just any person, an admirable person. As the authors of the “helper” study note, young children “actively manage their identities” in response to verbal cues: “Both children and adults are highly motivated to think of themselves as ‘good’ and worthy of approval. . . . Because behavior is often controllable, people can shape their self-image by behaving in ways that reflect the kind of person they want to be.”

In other words, children want to be viewed as helpers—that idea is appealing, and therefore motivating.

This study is both powerful and sobering. It reminds us that the language we use with children has a powerful effect on their self-concept, and it also reminds us that kids are eager to do the right thing and need opportunities to do so.

So what can parents of young children do to help them develop responsibility—to see themselves as “helpers”?

Use Process Praise to Inspire Positive Actions

The children in the study were inspired by the idea of being a helper, but kids need guidance to figure out what this looks like in action. Parents can use process praise to give kids concrete guidance and develop their internal motivation. Process praise is descriptive. Rather than simply saying, “Good work!” or “That’s great!,” share your specific observations about what your child is doing. This gives kids information about how they might act in the future. Process praise can be as simple as saying:

  • “You are putting all the blocks and books back in their bins. Thank you for being a helper.”
  • “Your coach told me that you worked on your swing over and over at practice today without complaining. You are a hard worker.

Give Kids Age-Appropriate Responsibilities

In the “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” episode “Daniel Is Big Enough to Help,” Daniel’s parents find ways to let their “Helper Daniel” assist them with household jobs. Some tasks are too big for him to do alone, but many are just the right size. As the episode’s song reminds us, “Everyone is big enough to do something.

Kids as young as one can be “clean-up helpers,” putting toys back into a bin or bringing you books to put back on the shelf. Using a simple phrase (“Clean-up time!”) or song can help prompt pre-verbal children. As kids develop more language, talk together about jobs that need to get done and how they can be helpers at home. Responsibilities might include:

  • watering plants
  • wiping the table after a meal
  • sorting and putting away toys
  • feeding or brushing a pet

Household jobs provide a great way to celebrate kids’ growing abilities. For example, a two-year-old might be able to help you pull clothes out of the dryer, a three-year-old might sort clean laundry into piles by type, and a four-year-old might fold their own pile and then put clothes away in the right drawers. Each time a child acquires a new skill, it’s a chance to remind them that they are growing up: “When you were three, I helped you put napkins and silverware on the table. But now that you are five, you know how to set whole the table all by yourself!”

When we nurture children’s desire to be “helpers,” we are giving a tremendous gift to them—and to others. Fred Rogers once shared this wisdom from his own childhood: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ . . . I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”

About Deborah Farmer Kris

Deborah Farmer Kris spent several years as a K-12 educator and as an associate at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She is a regular contributor for MindShift and the mother of two young children. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris.

You Might Also Like

  • Jeff

    I’m not sure I entirely agree. My experience suggests that *noticing* (e.g., “this room was messy and now it is clean because you put the toys away”) is motivating. However, adding a *judgment* about the child (“…because you are a helper”) is just that, a judgment of the child.

    In my opinion, judgments made to a child about their identity can be manipulative, whether those judgments are positive or negative. We essentially place our opinion of a child’s *self* into their brain. We are telling them who we think they *are,* permanently — who they ought to *be,* forever. It seems to me that this leaves children without the freedom to develop their own identity. We’ve taken away their freedom by telling them who they *are.* They will forever (at least until they develop self awareness, if ever) be judging themselves based on our judgment of them.

    Telling a child “you are a liar” can be just as problematic as saying “you are a truth-teller.”

    No one is a helper all the time, so a child who has been told they “are a helper” can easily judge themselves as an inferior person each time they forget to help or choose not to help. I think a child who has been told, “thanks for helping, we got the job done better because we did it together,” is less likely to judge themselves when they don’t help. I think they’d be more likely to think, “oops, I didn’t help, I’ll remember to help next time.”

    This is not to say that we don’t teach ethics or morality or positive character. We show happiness and gratitude when children help. The action, helping, becomes the thing that is shown as specifically worthy. A person is worthy whether they do what we want or not. When we value helping, sharing, giving, being compassionate, children can choose to *do* what we value or not and they maintain the freedom to *be* whoever they are.

    I hope more people will comment. What a fascinating and vitally important topic you’ve shared. Thank you!