Research on Sharing

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First of all the good news – even kids as young as age 3 understand that sharing is important.  The other thing to be aware of however is  they don’t really care, or can’t care, yet. 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.

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.

Sharing is a developmental process. Very young children don’t understand the concept of sharing. They are egocentric in their thinking – not because they are selfish or spoiled – but because they haven’t yet developed the thought processes to be able to see things from other peoples’ perspectives, to think logically, or to understand cause and effect relationships. There is a progression in how children typically share. Toddlers are mainly focused on understanding who they are apart from other people. That includes the concept ownership and they apply their understanding of ownership to everything: It’s mine! What is essential is the next step of understanding “mine” and “yours”

They also don’t understand that when they give something to someone that they will eventually get it back. Three-year-olds are gradually learning to share but often still have difficulty. Four-year-olds can usually understand the concept, but it is important to allow them time to have their own possessions and to communicate clearly what your expectations are about sharing and when it’s OK not to share. Even though being able to share is an age-related process, some kids will have a harder time learning to share than others.

The concept of sharing can also be situational. If you only have one child or it is your first born they may be more delayed in acquiring the concept of sharing as opposed to the second or third child who has had to share right from the beginning. And some kids will have an easier time sharing, in some situations, than in others – say, at preschool or childcare but not at home.

Mike Salas, a preschool teacher for 16 years states “I don’t make the children in my care share, I give them a choice to share or not. If they choose at that particular time not to share something with another child, that’s OK with me, because it’s now up to the other child who has to learn something that goes arm in arm with sharing–and that’s waiting’.

Young children 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, consistent parental modeling and some prefrontal brain development, they will get there.


Smith, C. E., Blake, P. R., & Harris, P. L. (2013). I should but I won’t: Why young children endorse norms of fair sharing but do not follow them. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59510. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059510

Social and Emotional Development, Sharing. Retrieved Dec 12, 2014  from .