Kids share more when they aren’t forced to

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

kids not sharing
Kids who were forced to share their toys were less likely to share in the future.

When I was in preschool, I remember lessons specifically designed to teach me and my classmates the importance of being nice. It was totally normal to hear phrases like “sharing is caring, it can be fun!” and “treat others the way you want to treated.” Some classmates took the lesson to heart and shared toys equally, while others were slow to let go of their favorite plaything. My teacher would turn to these more selfish kids and say, “If you don’t share, I will take it away from you for the rest of the day.” However, new research from Cornell University says that was the wrong thing to do.

“Making difficult choices allows children to infer something important about themselves: In making choices that aren’t necessarily easy, children might be able to infer their own prosociality,” said psychologist Nadia Chernyak, a graduate student at Cornell University who is interested in child morality. In other words, allowing children to make tough decisions lets them understand why it’s important to be nice to others.

In order to understand sharing behavior in children, the researchers tested children between the ages of 3 and 5. Some children had what researchers called a “tough choice” to make: either share their one precious sticker with a “sad” puppet called Doggie, or keep it for themselves. Other children had an “easy choice,” which was to share the sticker, or throw them in the trash! Seems like a lose-lose situation, doesn’t it? Finally, the rest of children were left with no choice and had to give their sticker to Doggie.

child sharing
It’s all about choice.

Then, researchers introduced the children to Ellie, another puppet who needed cheering up, only this time, the children were free to make their own sharing choices. It would seem like the kids who were forced to share would do it again, right, since practice makes perfect? At least, that’s what I thought, but the results were totally backwards. Apparently, the kids who had the the ”tough choice” to make with Doggie the first time around shared the most stickers with Ellie this time. As for the other kids who “practiced” sharing with Doggie, they were less likely to share stickers with Ellie! The researchers claim these results show that it’s not the act of sharing itself that causes kids to give out their favorite belongings. Instead it’s choosing to share something they really enjoy.

“You might imagine that making difficult, costly choices is taxing for young children or even that once children share, they don’t feel the need to do so again,”said Chernyak. “But this wasn’t the case: Once children made a difficult decision to give up something for someone else, they were more generous, not less, later on.”

I don’t know, I feel like kids would get tired of sharing their fun toys so many times, wouldn’t you? The researchers sure did, and so they ran another experiment to confirm their results. This time, they used valueless scraps of paper, toy frogs, and Doggie. They found that the children who shared the frogs with Doggie instead of the paper were more likely to share stickers with Ellie later on. On the other hand, the children who shared only the boring scraps of paper shared less stickers with Ellie in the future.

“Children are frequently taught to share, be polite, and be kind to others. In order to bring us closer to figuring out how to best teach children these skills, it is important to know which factors may aid in young children’s sharing behavior,” Chernyak said. “Allowing children to make difficult choices may influence their sharing behavior by teaching them greater lessons about their abilities, preferences, and intentions toward others.”

Images courtesy of ashbrian on Flickr