Want Helpful Kids? Study Says, “Invite virtue!”

Every parent wants children who will be helpful around the house.  It turns out, the words parents choose to encourage helping behavior in children may make all the difference in determining how easy it is to raise helpful, self-donative kids.

How do you get a preschooler to help with chores and other household tasks? Adults’ word choice can make a big difference.  A new study has found that parent word choice matters when encouraging preschool-age children to help others. Children were significantly more likely to help an experimenter when he or she referred to help using nouns (‘some children choose to be helpers’) than when he or she referred to help using verbs (‘some children choose to help’). 

“These findings suggest that parents and teachers can encourage young children to be more helpful by using virtue-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 virtue-noun ‘helper’ may send a signal that helping implies something positive about one’s identity, which may in turn motivate children to help more.

It’s tempting to write advice like this off.  It’s such a small thing that it can be difficult to imagine the difference it could possibly make, but I think the study points to a deeper reality.  Children have a natural drive to be good and virtuous if we show them how.  They don’t want to just do good things. They want to BE good.  Telling them how they can “be a helper”  “be responsible”  “be generous” and other virtues sends a message that how a child chooses to behave defines the kind of person he or she will become.  I think that message is consistent with the call for families to be “schools of love and virtue” (Familiaris Consortio).  It’s a message that resonates with our children because of the programming God built into every child that calls them to strive to become everything they were created to be.  Using these kinds of words with children invites them to be their best selves and that is an invitation children love to accept.

For more information on how you can invite your children to be their best selves, check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

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