Pharos-Tribune

Columns

May 4, 2014

CEPEDA: Appealing to a sense of self

”Who am I?” may be the most important question children ever ask themselves — and one that the adults in their lives can help answer in the best possible way.

Scientists are researching possible magic formulas for parents and other caregivers to provide children the best start in life, and the finer points of their findings are nothing short of fascinating.

In a study “‘Helping’ Versus ‘Being a Helper’: Invoking the Self to Increase Helping in Young Children,” appearing this month in the journal Child Development, researchers describe how differently children can behave when they internalize their intentions.

In experiments with middle- to upper-middle-class 3- to 6-year-olds from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, a researcher tested whether kids responded to prompts asking them to pick up a mess, open a container, put away toys or retrieve crayons that had spilled on the floor. The researcher said to the children either that “Some children choose to help” or that “Some children choose to be helpers.”

The results showed that kids who heard “helper” pitched in significantly more than children who heard “help.” And when the experimenter talked to youngsters about “helping” — a version of the word that does not refer back to the child — the kids didn’t offer any more assistance than when the experimenter never brought up helping at all.

“These findings suggest that parents and teachers can encourage young children to be more helpful by using nouns like ‘helper’ instead of verbs like ‘helping’ when making a request of a child,” says Christopher J. Bryan, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, who worked on the study. “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.”

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