What's the Best Way to Encourage Kids?

Around kitchen tables, in school hallways, from the sidelines of playing fields, the exhortations ring out: “You can do it!” “The sky’s the limit!” “Go for the gold!”

Raising the aspirations of children—especially those who are economically disadvantaged—has been a popular prescription for many years, and it’s not hard to see why. What could be wrong with encouraging kids to set their sights high?

But “what has been missing,” write a group of British researchers in a report released last month, “is any evidence that the recommended initiatives actually lead to the outcomes assumed by the policy.” The report, produced for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, reviewed programs designed to bolster students’ goals for the future.

“The widespread emphasis on raising aspirations,” the team concludes, “does not seem to be a good foundation for policy or practice.” What we need, they add, is “a shift in emphasis from ‘raising aspirations’ to ‘keeping aspirations on track.’”

The problem, in other words, is not one of low expectations—in fact, the report found that low-income families already have high hopes for their kids. Rather, the issue is finding a way around the practical barriers that stand in the way of anyone chasing a dream. And our frequent cries of “You can do it!” may actually be part of the problem. In a series of intriguing experiments recently published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers demonstrated that posing this sentiment as a question, rather than a declaration, led to more goal-directed behavior in the subjects they studied.

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In one of the experiments, Ibrahim Senay, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and two co-authors asked a group of subjects to prepare for an anagram-solving task by thinking either, “Will I work on anagrams?,” or “I will work on anagrams.” The participants who posed the question to themselves went on to solve significantly more of the anagram problems than those who contemplated the statement. In another experiment, subjects who simply wrote down “Will I” 20 times did better on the anagram task than subjects who repeatedly wrote “I will.”

The point of these exercises, explain Senay and his coauthors, was to investigate “how the way in which you talk to yourself shapes your future actions.” When we pose a question to ourselves, as opposed to stating a fact, we open up a space of freedom and autonomy in which the choice to pursue the activity is ours. And, Senay notes, “people are more likely to engage in a behavior when they have intrinsic motivation”—that is, “when they feel personally responsible for their action.”

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His point about “interrogative” versus “declarative” expressions finds ready application in the way we speak to children. Instead of encouraging kids to say to themselves, “I can do it!”, this research suggests that we should be telling young people to ask, “Will I do it?” or “Can I do it?” Better still, we can teach children to inquire of themselves, “How will I do it?” The difference is subtle but powerful: The first is a potentially empty affirmation, while the second gets kids started on what they really need to make it happen: a plan.

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