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Action verbs encourage children to be more persistent

Scientists at New York University (NYU) have found that using verbs to encourage certain actions in children leads to more follow-through compared to the use of nouns. For example, asking a child to “help” or to “read” results in more persistence than assigning them names such as “helper” or “reader.”

The results of the study contradict those of research conducted in 2014 which demonstrated that asking children to “be helpers” instead of “to help” subsequently led them to help more.

The difference between the two studies is that the more recent analysis investigated the outcome when children experienced setbacks while assisting with tasks. The study findings highlight the link between language and perseverance among children.

Marjorie Rhodes is an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author.

“The new research shows how subtle features of language can shape child behavior in ways not previously understood,” explained Professor Rhodes.

“In particular, using verbs to talk to children about behavior – such as ‘you can help’ – can lead to more determination following setbacks than using nouns to talk about identities – for instance, ‘you can be a helper.’”

The research team found that asking children between the ages of four and five to “be helpers” rather than “to help” led them to assist with more tasks, such as picking up crayons that had fallen on the floor or helping to open a box. This effect, however, backfired after children experienced difficulty while trying to be helpful.

In a series of experiments, the children were given the opportunity to help the experimenter clean up some toys after being asked either to “be helpers” or “to help.”

The conditions were designed so that the children would experience difficulties, which represented those that young children deal with in everyday life, as they were trying to help. For example, when children picked up a box to move it to a shelf, the contents spilled all over the floor because the box fell apart.

The study revealed that children who had originally been asked “to help” were more persistent after any setbacks compared to those who were asked to “be helpers.”

After the setbacks, children asked “to help” were just as likely to assist with challenging situations that benefited only the experimenter as they were to participate in easy situations that also benefited themselves. Children asked “to be helpers,” however, rarely ever helped in the challenging situations that benefited only the experimenter after dealing with difficulties.

“This research shows how talking to children about actions they can take – in this case, that they can do helpful things -can encourage more persistence following setbacks than talking to children about identities that they can take on,” said lead author Emily Foster-Hanson.

The study is published in the journal Child Development.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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