By Tracy Cassels, PhD
To force our kids to share or let them not share? This is something that causes a lot of anxiety in parents. You see, our kids naturally don’t really want to share, so when we’re in a social situation and our kids are being, well, kids, we can feel horribly judged and rude when our child refuses to share any of their toys and snatches those toys back from the poor, unsuspecting visitor. Most parents start with the request that the child share, following by a bit of pleading mixed with reasoning, and then finally force or punishment. The question we have to ask ourselves is if this works and if it does, to what end?
Understanding Children’s Sharing
Most of the time we think about sharing as being a simple construct – you share or you don’t – but it’s not quite that simple.
As adults, we often have various nuances when it comes to sharing; for example, we will share things that we don’t highly value but often won’t lend out, say, our wedding rings.
We also are more likely to share with those people we know and trust than to a complete stranger. These things matter because they influence the risk associated with sharing behaviours; we are more likely to perceive never getting an item back from a stranger than we are a close friend (or if they don’t, we at least know where they live).
In research on sharing, we see that kids show some of these similar traits. In one study with 3- to 6-year-olds, examining the role of need and social relationships on sharing behaviour, children were found to share more with a rich friend than a stranger in need, highlighting that same element of familiarity and liking that us adults display. Other factors that also impact children’s sharing behaviours are strongly linked to development; for example, children are first able to identify that people should share years before they are actually doing it and this lack of sharing occurs even though children as young as 3-4 are adverse to inequality even when it benefits them! Other cognitive and social developmental factors linked to sharing include theory of mind development, delay of gratification, inhibitory control, and understanding of others’ distress. Even in older ages when sharing is more established (around ages 7-8), it can be undone through simply priming of getting kids to think about themselves instead of others, highlighting the very precarious nature of this behaviour.
Notably, in all of this research, children are really giving away items that didn’t belong to them before the experiment, not being asked to share their own items that they presumably have a bond with.
Sharing our own precious things is bound to create even greater resistance to sharing. It’s like the difference between being given two new phones and having the option to give one away (while keeping the other) versus being asked to hand yours over and hope you get it back. This is why even in resource allocation tasks, there is a difference in how kids share when they feel what they have is their own (e.g., earned rewards) versus sharing items that don’t belong to them; needless to say, they are less likely to share when it is costly for them, which means the kids not sharing at home seem to be behaving in a very logical manner.