Parents are constantly teaching little ones to share with others, which is a hard lesson to learn. Researchers did some digging and it turns out little kids really know they should share — they just don't want to.

Share and share alike, right? As soon as their little ones are old enough to play with toys, most parents are diligent about teaching them to share. But what does sharing really mean to a young child, and is this a lesson in futility? Researchers wondered how 3-year-olds felt about sharing — and the results of their study may surprise you.

Why share, anyway?

Why should we teach them to share, when as adults we certainly don't just turn over our stuff to strangers?

Although most of us were raised to take turns and share everything, there is a movement among moms these days in the opposite direction. "Why should we teach them to share, when as adults we certainly don't just turn over our stuff to strangers?" asked one mom of two. For the child who brings his favorite toy to the park, having to give the toy to any other child, simply because they want it doesn't do much to teach them the value of sharing. "I wouldn't just hand my iPhone or a new book to someone just because I 'should' do it," shares Kim, mother of a preschooler. While it is important to be polite and kind to others, it's quite possible that the concept of sharing has gotten out of hand. Nothing gets you the evil eye more quickly than being that one mom at the park who won't make her son share.

Kids get it — they just don't care

little girl with stickersResearchers wondered if kids really knew that sharing was the right thing to do — or if they would have to learn it as they grew. Developmental psychologists have been wondering how the concepts of sharing and altruism develop in humans. So Craig Smith — postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor — decided to find out. He and fellow researchers Peter Blake from Boston University and Paul Harris from Harvard University gave 102 young children stickers and recorded what happened.

When 3-year-olds were given stickers that they could then share with another child, they chose to keep them instead. When asked to predict if another child would share stickers with them, the test subjects proved to be optimistic, and felt that they would share. However, when it got right down to the actual sharing, they just couldn't do it. So although 3-year-olds know that the expected behavior is equal sharing, they aren't yet ready to fully embrace it.

It gets better with age

While test subjects of both age groups felt that equal sharing of stickers not only applied to them — but to others too — only the older group actually did share stickers equally. Despite the feeling that sharing was good and that their peers would practice equal sharing, the younger group shared significantly less than an equal split when given a chance to share.

Researchers found that the weight children attach to the importance of sharing shows a definite increase with age, even when they see that sharing actually means that some of "their" stuff will go to someone else.

The group of 8-year-olds not only embraced the idea of sharing, but they gave half of their stickers to the other child. "Maybe little kids think, 'I know I should share equally, but why should I?'" Smith says. "There's a sort of cynicism." Whatever the cause, researchers found that the weight children attach to the importance of sharing shows a definite increase with age, even when they see that sharing actually means that some of "their" stuff will go to someone else.

Bottom Line^ So what do you think? Should children be taught to share no matter what, or can they learn to share their possessions only when they feel like it?

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