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Is It Better for Young Children to 'Be' or 'Do'?

If you want young children to stick to a tough task, framing it as a positive part of their identity may motivate them at first, but may backfire when they run into challenges.

That's the upshot of a new study in the journal Child Development, in which New York University researchers conducted a series of experiments asking 4- and 5-year olds to either "help" or "be helpers." Children in both groups worked with a researcher to clean up toys and boxes on the floor.

It was a similar set-up to a separate 2014 study, which found that 3- to 6-year-olds who were asked to "be helpers" were more enthusiastic about helping than those simply asked to help. Findings in the 2014 study suggested that "children are motivated to pursue a positive identity," and using nouns to frame tasks could motivate them.

But in this study, researchers threw kids a curveball: They were asked to pick up a box which had been designed to spill ping-pong balls everywhere when lifted, or a toy truck designed to break when handled. 

"Often when [young children] try to help, you end up with a bigger mess than you started with—which is OK. because of the learning process," said Marjorie Rhodes, the senior researcher on the study and an associate psychology professor at New York University. "These kinds of setbacks are an everyday part of kids' experiences. So we thought it was really important to check how the language might interact with those challenges that kids face." 

After the mishap, children who had been asked to help again were equally likely to help again, even when it was difficult or didn't benefit them, while children asked to "be helpers" helped again only when it was easy and in their own interest. Moreover, the children asked to "be helpers," but failed later rated their own ability to help as lower than did the children who had been asked to help.

Developing Academic and Social Identity

The findings are in line with prior studies on student mindset: whether students believe abilities are innate (fixed) or improved through effort (growth). Students with a fixed mindset tend to have more difficulty recovering from setbacks when learning a new skill and are less likely to seek out challenges. Praising young students' ability has been associated with them developing a fixed mindset, while praising effort has been associated with a growth mindset. 

"A lot of the time parents and teachers think those [identity] statements are OK as long as they don't express anything negative," Rhodes said. "But what we had found is that often when young children hear a bunch of statements like that, it really reinforces this idea to them that there're these sharp category boundaries. ... It makes them more susceptible to develop negative stereotypes ... and a whole bunch of things that might not be helpful for them to believe."

In a separate, forthcoming series of experiments, Rhodes and her colleagues have found similar results when asking slightly older students to "be a scientist" or "do science" before challenging science tasks. "It's kind of similar across the academic and social domains... for these categories that children have the potential to think of as fundamental to their identity and then worry about whether they are members or not," Rhodes said.

She cautioned, however, that framing tasks as actions rather than pieces of identity may not have the same effect for older students. Prior studies have found, for example, that adolescents often see teachers praising their effort as a sign the adult does not believe in their ability.

 

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