Sharing is our innate nature – no need to force-feed it to our children

Children if allowed to choose to share become more prosocial, says new study

Little boy sharing his cookie

Every parent can relate to how difficult it can get to make a child share a toy that s/he likes.  A new study suggests that rather than force them to share, letting them make the choice helps them realise the value of sharing much better. They are more likely to share again—by their own will—if they were not forced to share the first time around. These new findings were published in Psychological Science.

Psychological scientists Nadia Chernyak and Tamar Kushnir of Cornell University, through their experiments have shown that sharing on account of free will makes the kids feel better about themselves and they are more likely to repeat such sharing if another occasion presents itself.

Earlier research has shown that rewards or bribes for sharing are counter-productive since the children start believing in “I don’t share – that’s who I am” and hence they do not expect themselves to share again in the future.

"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." explains Nadia.

The kids, aged 3-5 years, were first introduced to Doggie, a puppet feeling quite down. Some kids had difficult choice—whether to give a sticker to Doggie to make him happy or to take the sticker for themselves and feel happy. Kids from the second group had slightly easier choice—whether to make Doggie happy by giving him the sticker or keeping the sticker aside so that no one really gets the sticker. The third group of kids were forced to give the sticker to Doggie.

The kids then met another puppet: Ellie who was also very sad. Now all the three groups had to share stickers with Ellie. But they had a choice: they could give more stickers [up to 3 stickers] to make Ellie happier.

The results showed that the first group shared more stickers than the other two.

"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," Chernyak says. "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."

"Children are frequently taught to share, be polite, and be kind to others. In order to bring us closer to one day figuring out how to best teach children these skills, it is important to figure out which factors may aid in young children's sharing behaviour," Chernyak concludes. "Allowing children to make difficult choices may influence their sharing behaviour by teaching them greater lessons about their abilities, preferences, and intentions towards others."

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