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The Magic Word that Motivates a Child to Help


Assigning age-appropriate chores that impart important lessons, is important. Not only do children get to experience their world on a sensory level as they help around the house; they also develop a better working memory as they need to recall steps and attend to detail. They learn to deal with proverbial curve balls and practise managing their behaviour and emotions. In reality, in our digital age, where many children seldom spend time playing with dirt and stones, picking up toys and helping to sort the laundry may be as close as they come to spending time in the real world.

What if your little apprentice isn’t keen on getting involved? Well, there is a magic word that may make a difference, and it isn’t “please”. The word is “helper”. Researchers from the University of California in San Diego report that 3 to 6 year olds are far more likely to get involved in chores when the adult in charge mentioned earlier on that “some children choose to be helpers”.

For this particular study, 150 children from a variety of backgrounds were divided into two groups. Both groups were given the opportunity to play with toys and were presented with four opportunities where they could stop playing and help pick up a mess, open a container, put away toys, and pick up crayons that spilled on the floor.

The only difference between the two groups was in what the researchers said to them before they started to play. Children, who had heard that “some children choose to help,” acted no differently than typical children of that age do when they are confronted with a chore. However, children who had been told that “some children choose to be helpers,” responded differently. They were significantly more likely to lend a helping hand when the opportunity arose. In fact, they seemed to be keen to take on the identity of helpers and ended up acting like real little contributors.

This serves to demonstrate just how easy it is to shape a child’s identity. It emphasizes how keen children are to pursue a positive identity and how much there is to gain from choosing our words wisely.


Read more about the study: Christopher J. Bryan, Allison Master, Gregory M. Walton. “Helping” Versus “Being a Helper”: Invoking the Self to Increase Helping in Young Children. Child Development, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12244

Written by Lizette van Huyssteen

"When we know better... we do better."

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