Family Matters

Young Kids Know How to Share but Choose Not To

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Learning to share is one thing, but getting children to do it is another.

From early on, moms and dads drill the importance of taking turns and sharing toys and other bounty into their young charges; sharing, after all, shows caring.

But as any social scientist can tell you, the gap between knowing how to act and actually doing it can be vast, which was confirmed by the latest study on how young children learn the rules of sharing.

The good news first: even kids as young as age 3 understand that sharing is important. The bad news? They don’t really care. Although preschoolers can appreciate sharing as a social norm, they don’t really embrace the principle until they’re at least 7, according to the study, published in the journal PLOS One.

“Sharing is a hot topic,” says Craig Smith, lead author and a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Michigan’s department of psychology. “If you look at studies that show what kids fight about, it’s sharing. Given a resource and the chance to split it equally, they don’t share.”

Smith’s is the first study to ask children both about their sharing sentiments in theory and — regardless of how they felt about it — whether they did it in practice. “We were able to reveal the gap between what kids say they want to do and what they do,” says Smith.

The researchers used a childhood favorite — stickers — to reach their conclusion. To pump up the desirability factor, they used scratch-and-sniff varieties. “We tried to up the excitement level with the smell,” explains Smith.

When he gave a group of 102 children ages 3 to 8 these stickers and asked them their opinion of sharing, all of the kids said they should divide the stickers equally and that other kids should do the same. But when the proverbial push came to shove, the younger kids warmed to sharing only in theory. It wasn’t until they reached ages 7 to 8 that they practiced what they preached.

(MORE: How Would Preschool for All Work: Is It All About Play or ABCs?)

It’s not that the youngest didn’t know how to share; they may simply have been unable to control their natural impulse to keep the stickers as well as older children did and actually take the step of giving up some of their bounty to others.

To test that hypothesis of poor impulse control, the researchers gave the children a picture of the sun and moon and instructed them to say “night” when they gazed at the sun and “day” when they looked at the moon — an exercise that required exercising control over saying what made sense. The older kids were more successful, proving, not surprisingly, that impulse control improves with age. The findings also track with what scientists know about the development of the prefrontal area of the brain, which is responsible for impulse control and self-regulation and develops rapidly in childhood.

At least the children were honest about their intentions. In another experiment, both younger and older kids were able to accurately predict how they’d behave. Children toward the older end of the spectrum predicted that given the chance, they’d share and share alike; younger kids ages 3 to 6 said they’d put themselves first. “The youngest kids were most likely to hoard and the oldest kids were most likely to evenly split the stickers,” says Smith. “The youngest kids have this odd self-awareness and were able to correctly predict their own lack of sharing.”

The data support previous research done on measuring an emotion related to sharing — empathy — among children. Among a group of 6- and 9-year olds who survived a devastating earthquake in China’s Sichuan province in 2008, the older children were more likely to share stickers given to them by researchers than the younger ones were.

(MORE: How Disasters Bring Out Our Kindness)

Still, it wouldn’t be fair to paint preschoolers as egotistical maniacs. Smith notes that little kids do “lots of cool things” to help other people: they’re quick to assist if someone drops something and they’re eager to lend a hand with finishing tasks. (As a toddler, my youngest daughter’s favorite sentence was: “I hep you.”)

Little kids struggle with being kind if it also involves giving up something they want. But that perspective, it seems, is only temporary: with a little maturation and some prefrontal development, they’ll get there.