How to Raise Helpful Children
New research shows how to encourage children to help when things get tough.
Posted June 5, 2019
On a recent evening, my 5-year-old helped me set the table for dinner. After we wiped down the table and set out drinks, he ran to get the placemats. He slid one across the table a little over-enthusiastically—knocking over his brother’s just-filled cup and spilling milk all over the table and onto the floor.
His eyes filled with the look of frustration, self-doubt, and sadness that children often have when they try to help and instead make things harder. I took a deep breath and wondered what would happen next—would he keep it together and help wipe up the mess or run crying from the scene?
Recent research from my developmental psychology laboratory at New York University discovered one way that parents can have some sway over the ending of stories like these. Led by my doctoral student, Emily Foster-Hanson, we found that what children do after setbacks like these depends on how they were asked to help in the first place.
In our research, conducted at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and recently published in Child Development, we asked children to help in two subtly different ways: We asked them either “to help” or to “be a helper.” Asking a child “to help” is a simple request to do a helpful behavior. On the other hand, asking a child to “be a helper” asks them to take on an identity as a helpful person.
It might feel like it would be more motivating to ask a child to “be a helper,” but our results showed the opposite. Children who were asked “to help” continued trying to help even after they faced setbacks—like breaking a toy while trying to put it away—more than children who were asked to “be helpers.”
During the study, after children were asked either “to help” or to “be a helper,” we gave them opportunities to help to see what they would choose to do. The first two chances to help were rigged to create the types of setbacks that are common in children’s daily lives—as when a child spills milk all over the floor while trying to set the table. For example, we asked children to put away a box of ping-pong balls that had a sneaky false bottom, and a toy that easily fell apart when they tried to put it on a shelf.
What did children do next? We wanted to see if children would give up after these setbacks or keep trying to help. To test this, we gave them three more opportunities to help. Children who were initially asked “to help” did not give up. About 65 percent of these children chose to help on the very next chance after the setback, even though doing so asked a lot of them—they had to stop a fun coloring activity, walk across the room, and help an adult put away some blocks that had been left out by another child. In contrast, only 40 percent of children who had been asked to “be helpers” chose to keep helping in this situation. The rest chose to stay in their seats and keep coloring.
Across the opportunities to help that children were given after the setbacks, those who were asked to “be helpers” helped only when doing so was easy. For example, they helped by picking up their crayons from the floor next to their seats. In contrast, children who were asked “to help” were just as likely to help when doing so was hard as when it was easy.
Why does such a subtle change in language matter to children? Labels, in this case, the label of “helper,” lead children to think of boundaries—to assume that someone is either in or out of a group. This means that talking to children about “helpers” brings to their minds that some people are “not helpers” too. This way of thinking can be problematic once children experience setbacks because the setbacks cause concern that they might not belong in the helper group—making them more likely to give up.
Talking about identities (here, asking children to “be helpers,” but also asking them to be “drawers,” “scientists,” and so on) can sound motivating from an adult perspective, and labels like these are very common in how people talk to young children. But our research indicates that this language raises the stakes for children when things go awry. Although many factors go into building children’s resilience, talking to children about actions they can take (for example, “you can help,” “try drawing,” or “let's do science”)—instead of identities they need to have—can buffer children against the inevitable difficulties of childhood.
An earlier version of this article appeared in nymetroparents.com.
Foster-Hanson, E., Cimpian, A., Leshin, R. & Rhodes, M. (2018). Asking children to “be helpers” can backfire after setbacks. Child Development.
Rhodes, M., Leslie, S.J., Yee, K., & Saunders, K. (2019). Subtle linguistic cues increase girls' engagement in science. Psychological Science, 30. 455-466.