Will you pick up your toys, please? How many times have I uttered this phrase, only to repeat myself two minutes later? I'd rather not think about it. But it turns out that I can make minor changes in my communication with my preschooler that will make it considerably more likely he'll cooperate the first time.
Photo credit: Comstock Images/ Stockbyte/ Getty Images

You've asked, prodded, cajoled and begged, but your preschooler hasn't budged. How can you help your little ones find the desire to help?

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology researched the effects of parental praise on child behavior, and the results may surprise you.

It turns out that there are a couple of very simple tweaks parents can make when we speak to our children that up the chance they'll cooperate by as much as 20 percent. We all know that praise is a powerful motivator, but not all praise affects us the same way.

Praising character

"The researchers randomly assigned the children to receive different types of praise," according to The New York Times. "For some of the children, they praised the action: 'It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.' For others, they praised the character behind the action: 'I guess you're the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.'"

Praising effort

"Praise for ability is commonly considered to have beneficial effects on motivation," according to the research abstract. "Contrary to this popular belief, six studies demonstrated that praise for intelligence had more negative consequences for students' achievement motivation than praise for effort. Fifth graders praised for intelligence were found to care more about performance goals relative to learning goals than children praised for effort."

Fifth graders praised for intelligence were found to care more about performance goals relative to learning goals than children praised for effort.

After failing at a task, children who were praised for ability also displayed "less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low-ability attributions, and worse task performance than children praised for effort."

So, if you want to effectively motivate your child to achieve (don't we all?), it's imperative that you praise their efforts instead of the abilities. When I work on reading with my preschooler, I should not tell him, "Wow! You're a great reader!" because that communicates to him that, as far as reading is concerned, he's arrived. No point in working to achieve more. On the other hand, if I say, "Wow! You really focused today. You're a really hard worker!" I'm shining my approval on his efforts.

A helpful child

Another recent study published in the Journal of Child Development approaches the topic from a different angle. The researchers studied what moved kids to stop playing with fun toys and help their parents.

One hundred preschoolers were divided into two groups. Half of them were told about helping, and the rest learned about being helpers. They gave the kids some really fun toys, and once the kids were involved in play, they were given various opportunities to help someone else. The kids who learned about being helpers abandoned their playthings to help 20 percent more often than the kids who simply learned about the virtues of helping.

Bottom line^So what does all this mean? If you want to raise a motivated, conscientious kid, choose your words wisely. If you praise effort, more effort will result. A word of caution, as this method can backfire if taken too far: "When dealing with kids, adults should be careful not to take the approach too far," Bryan says. "In some cases, it can set kids up to fall harder if they fail."

More on behavior

We wouldn't get the "Well-Behaved Child" discount
How I'm teaching my kids to manage their emotions
I hope my kids aren't straight A students