How to Raise a Helpful Child

How to Raise a Helpful Child

Is your child helpful or a helper? The language you use makes a difference.

As parents, we all want to raise children who are emotionally intelligent and good decision makers. We want to have kids with character. So much of our focus is on our child’s identity, rather than her actions. But what if we spoke to them in such a way that didn’t equate their characteristics with who they are? Marjorie Rhodes, Ph.D. explores the effect language has on our children, particularly in terms of developing helpfulness.

On a recent evening, my five-year-old was helping me set the table for dinner. After we wiped down the table and set out drinks, he ran to bring 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, but end up making 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 illustrates one way that parents may, in fact, have some control over the ending of stories like these.

Led by my doctoral student, Emily Foster-Hanson, our findings suggest that children’s behavior in these situations depends in part on subtle features of language. We found that children who were asked simply “to help” had more persistence after setbacks than children who were asked to “be helpers”.

Asking children to “be helpers” asks them to take on membership in a special category—to make being helpful part of who they are. While this might sound motivating, our studies, recently published in Child Development, found that this language also raises the stakes.

Category labels 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 mind that some people are “not helpers” too.

Thinking of who can help in these categorical terms could be problematic once children experience difficulties, such as when they spill milk on the floor while trying to set the table (or drop a pile of recently folded laundry while trying to put it away, or knock over a box of toys while trying to pick up them up, or….). Could these experiences lead children to conclude that they lack the capacity to be in the “helper” group?

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In our studies, a researcher first talked to children (ages 4-5) about how they could “be helpers” or simply could “help.” Then children were asked to help in two scenarios, which we had rigged to create situations like the spilled milk. For example, we asked them to move a box of balls that had a sneaky false bottom—when children tried to help, the balls spilled all over the floor.

After these experiences, a new researcher arrived who did not know which language each child had initially heard. She created three more (not-rigged) opportunities for children to help. Two of these were hard, from a child’s perspective. In one scenario, the researcher needed help putting away blocks on the other side of the room. To help the researcher, children would have to stop what they were doing, walk across the room, and choose to help a stranger. After two of opportunities like this, the third opportunity was easy—children could pick up some crayons that they could then use themselves, from the comfort of their own seat.

Children who were initially asked “to help” were more resilient. About 65% of these children chose to help on the first opportunity after they experienced the rigged setbacks. These children were just as likely to help when it was hard as when it was easy.

Children asked to “be helpers” were less resilient. Only about 40% of these children chose to help on the first opportunity after the setbacks, and these children were much more likely to help when it was easy than when it was hard. 

Talking about identities (here, asking children to “be helpers”, but also asking them to be, “readers”, “artists”, and so on) can sound motivating from an adult perspective. But this research indicates that this language also raises the stakes when things go awry. Although many factors go into building children’s resilience, talking to children about actions they can take—instead of identities they need to have—can buffer children against the experiences of difficulty that are an inevitable part of early childhood development.