By Emma Young
According to the Mindset Theory, if you tell a child repeatedly that they’re smart, it makes them less willing to push themselves when they get stuck on an intellectual challenge, presumably because failure would threaten their self-image of being a “smart kid”. For this reason, effort-based praise – rewarding kids for “working hard” rather than “being smart” – is widely recommended (though it’s not the same for adults). But does a similar effect occur in the social sphere? What if you ask a child – as so many parents and surely teachers do – to “be a helper” as if it’s a category that you either belong to or you don’t?
Earlier research has found that young kids are more likely to try to help others when they are asked to “be helpers” instead of “to help”. But as Emily Foster-Hanson and her fellow researchers at New York University note, “Setbacks and difficulties are common features of children’s experience throughout development and into adulthood,” so it’s important to examine the effects of category labelling – like “being smart” or “being a helper” – when things go wrong for the child. And in their new paper, published in Child Development, they find that setbacks are more detrimental to a child labelled “a helper” than a child asked “to help”.
The researchers recruited a total of 139 four- and five-year olds who were visiting the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and tested each of them alone in a private room in the museum. At the start, half of them were primed with a short introduction to think of themselves as “a helper” (for example, “when someone needs to pick things up, you could be a helper”) and the others to think of themselves as someone who could “help” (“when someone needs to pick things up, you could help”).
Next, the researchers gave the children various theoretical helping scenarios to act out with puppets, one of which represented them, either “helping” or “being a helper” (the wording was varied in the experimenter’s script according to the child’s experimental group). Afterwards the children were quizzed about their attitudes towards helping and the results suggested that, after role-playing encountering a setback when helping (such as accidentally knocking over a cup of crayons when tidying them up), “helpers” had more negative attitudes toward helping than those who’d “helped”.
For a second study, on a fresh group of children, the researchers investigated the effect of real setbacks. These kids were set up to fail. In one scenario, for example, an experimenter prompted the child to help (or be a helper) by putting away a box that was on the table. If the child didn’t immediately go to do it, they got a succession of prompts, until they did. But the box had a loose bottom, and it was full of ping pong balls, which fell onto the floor when the child picked it up. In another example, a child was prompted to put away a toy truck, which had in fact been disassembled and then had the parts put back together so that it looked intact, but as soon as it was picked up, it fell apart.
The researchers found that after experiencing these setbacks, the “helper” kids were less likely to voluntarily go and help in two other fairly demanding helping situations (such as going into another part of the room to put away bricks into bags) than the kids in the “helping” group. “This pattern is broadly consistent with the idea that children who had been told to ‘be helpers’ but then made mistakes were overall less motivated to help than the children who had been told ‘to help’,” the researchers write.
The helper kids were, however, more likely to go on to voluntarily help with an easy task that involved bending down to pick up dropped crayons that they could then use. This was a low-effort task with a high degree of success. Perhaps they were taking advantage of a quick, virtually guaranteed way to restore a little of their dented “helper” image.
The researchers also found that children asked to be helpers – and who subsequently chose not to help on either of the more effortful tasks – afterwards gave lower self-evaluations of their helping abilities than children in the “helping” group who had also declined to help with those tasks. This suggests that the helper group were now thinking in a black-and-white way about helper status and helping abilities.
“These data indicate that categorical language can have detrimental consequences for children’s behaviour, even in non-academic domains and even when the categorical input is not evaluative in content,” the researchers write. (In these studies, no one talked about being a “good helper” and there was no evaluation of this behaviour.)
Do these scenarios accurately mirror real life? After the setbacks, the experimenter always responded in a neutral fashion, saying without emotion, “Oh well, I guess I can put those away later”, for instance. A parent or a teacher might respond differently, telling the child not to worry, and pointing out that it was a really tricky task. Might these kinds of encouraging, comforting responses ameliorate or even eradicate the effects of a setback on future helping? Only further research will tell.
Still, this work does, as the researchers write, “provide an important caveat to previous messages to parents and teachers about how to use language to encourage pro-sociality in early childhood.”