Esther Cepeda: Appealing to a sense of self
CHICAGO -- “Who am I?” may be the most important question children ever ask themselves—and one that the adults in their lives can help answer in the best possible way.
Scientists are researching possible magic formulas for parents and other caregivers to provide children the best start in life, and the finer points of their findings are nothing short of fascinating.
In a study “‘Helping’ Versus ‘Being a Helper’: Invoking the Self to Increase Helping in Young Children,” appearing this month in the journal Child Development, researchers describe how differently children can behave when they internalize their intentions.
In experiments with middle- to upper-middle-class 3- to 6-year-olds from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds, a researcher tested whether kids responded to prompts asking them to pick up a mess, open a container, put away toys or retrieve crayons that had spilled on the floor. The researcher said to the children either that “Some children choose to help” or that “Some children choose to be helpers.”
The results showed that kids who heard “helper” pitched in significantly more than children who heard “help.” And when the experimenter talked to youngsters about “helping”—a version of the word that does not refer back to the child—the kids didn’t offer any more assistance than when the experimenter never brought up helping at all.
“These findings suggest that parents and teachers can encourage young children to be more helpful by using 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 noun ‘helper’ may send a signal that helping implies something positive about one’s identity, which may in turn motivate children to help more.”
Can just this little adjustment make a significant impact on how those around us see themselves? It seems possible—and not just for children. Next time you need to persuade someone to join your working group, committee or board, remember to appeal to their sense of self instead of their mental scorecard of responsibility.
No one knows where the sense of self comes from—it’s obviously not as simple as picking it up from home, or all children would be carbon copies of their parents. The smartest minds in the study of intelligence and adaptability are deferring to some combination of nurture and nature, instead of leaning more heavily toward one or the other.
Yet the importance of the nurture part of the equation cannot be overstated. In study after study, researchers have found that people who are conditioned to keep a specific goal in mind throughout their lives are likelier to get closer to reaching it than those who never have such a goal presented as a viable option.
Those running cutting-edge programs to push students who would be the first in their family to attend college find that they fare best when they get to the parents early in a student’s life. Presenting the specific goal of higher education to parents, in addition to ongoing resources and encouragement, makes college a real possibility—if not an expectation—for their children.
The opposite is also true. Kids who do not clearly envision a future for themselves can falter.
Alex Piquero, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, asked serious youth offenders “How long do you think you’ll live?” and then tracked their brushes with the law over the next seven years. He found that those who predicted they’d die young offended at very high rates and committed more serious offenses than those who believed they would live a long life.
“In a lot of distressed communities and for a lot of offenders, they don’t see a future,” Piquero said. “They think, ‘Why do I have to go to school? I’m not going to make it past 21.’ And in many of our interviews with these kids, they basically said, ‘I’m not going to make it until next week, so why would I even care?’”
Self-fulfilling prophecies are the interplay between belief and behavior. As parents, mentors, educators and role models, we must understand the many opportunities we get to shape kids’ perceptions of both themselves and their possibilities in life. How we articulate their potential and help them define their best selves is a responsibility that holds great power.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.