Want to motivate your kids to help out? Try defining them as “helpers.” So says a new study in the journal Child Development. Experimenters divided 100 preschoolers into two groups. Half got a talk about helping; the others heard about being helpers. While the children were playing, those who got the talk about being helpers dropped their toys to help 20 percent more often.
The difference is nuanced, but important. When you want to reinforce a moral trait (like being a “helper” or “giver”) use nouns—not verbs! Being called a helper makes kids feel they're embodying a virtue, says Christopher Bryan, one of the psychologists behind the study. Conversely, if you want to reinforce skill-based behavior it’s best to focus on specific detailed actions and effort. (As we mentioned in a previous Communication Capsule, rather than offering vague “Good job” kudos to kids, we reinforce their hard work and the specific activities that helped them achieve success: "Wow, how did you do that? Could you show me how to do that?")
By the way, the moral motivation phenomenon isn't unique to kids. In a previous study, Bryan found that asking grown-ups, "How important is it to you to be a voter?" was more likely to get them to the polls than asking them about the importance of voting.
We want to hear! What happens when you motivate kids, or adults, by using virtue-based nouns? Join the conversation and click "comments" on our Community of Practice Forum.