Both parents and teachers often seemed consumed with how to get preschoolers to share, and pushing or forcing them to share doesn’t seem to work. And unfortunately research has not given us a clear picture of what works – until now. New research from Cornell University begins to shine a light on the circumstances that predict future sharing behavior. Allowing children to make the difficult choice to give up their own toys in order to share with someone else makes them more likely to share in the future. The researchers suggest that sharing when given a difficult choice leads children to see themselves as somebody who likes to share and that this view of themselves makes them more likely to share in the future. Previous research has shown that this idea called the justification effect can explain why rewarding children for sharing can backfire. Children begin to see themselves as someone who doesn’t like to share since they have to be rewarded for doing so. Because they don’t view themselves as “sharers” they are LESS likely to share in the future.
The Cornell researchers hypothesized that “Making difficult choices allows children to infer something about themselves: In making choices that aren’t necessarily easy, children might be able to infer their own prosociality.” To test this they introduced 3-5 year-old children to Doggie, a puppet, who was feeling sad. Some of the children were given a difficult choice: Share a precious sticker with Doggie or keep it for themselves. Other children were given an easy choice between sharing between sharing and putting the sticker away, while the third group were required to share. Later on the children were introduce to Ellie, another sad puppet. They were given the option of how many stickers to share. The kids who made the earlier difficult choice to share with Doggie shared more stickers with Ellie. The kids who previously were given the easy choice or made to share with Doggie shared fewer stickers.
“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,” says Dr. Chernyak, the lead investigator. “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.”
So, rewarding children for sharing or requiring children to share may indeed backfire and result in less prosocial behavior. It’s better to simply offer them the choice of making the difficult decision to share. Once they do so, the positive view they have of themselves is its own reward.
(Exerpted from and adapted from Science Daily, Aug 19, 2013)