It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon. You are babysitting your neighbor’s two children, Mark and Sarah, ages two and three respectively. Today is pizza day — which, unfortunately for you, is usually a headache, since Mark and Sarah never want to share evenly and always fight over who gets a larger slice…
I’m sure many of you have found yourselves in similar situations in the past, most of which don’t end well. Research corroborates the detrimental effects that anti-social behavior like selfishness can have on a child’s overall well-being (Knapp et al., 1999). Thus, sharing (and the acquisition of prosocial behavior) is a very important social skill that children learn in their typical developmental trajectories (Mussen & Eisenberg-Berg, 1977). For example, it is no coincidence that altruistic behavior has been studied among preschoolers (Paulus & Moore, 2014), since encouraging sharing at an early age is oftentimes a priority for many parents and teachers.
Fortunately, researchers have proposed quite a few strategies to promote sharing among young children. A study by Hamann et al. 2011, which was published in the highly reputable Nature journal with over 350 citations, found that if kids work together to accomplish a goal, it is more likely they will share rewards equally! How did they come to this conclusion?
In their first study (study 1), pairs of children (ages two or three) in the “collaboration” condition faced an enclosed board and, together, had to both pull on ropes extending from either end of this board to access a reward, which was three toys for one child and only one for the other. In the control condition, children entered the room with the toys already distributed, with three toys at one end and one toy at the other.
In a second experiment (study 2), in addition to these two conditions, children engaged in a third “parallel-work” control in which each child pulled on a separate board with their own separate rope to obtain the toy reward. This would rule out the potential confounding explanation that children are simply more attentive to work effort in general.
In study 1, their primary finding was that the child who received three toys was significantly more likely to give a toy to the child who only received one toy (and thereby restoring equity) in the “collaboration” condition compared to the control condition. However, in study 2, there was a smaller difference between the experimental and control conditions for two-year-olds compared to three-year-olds, suggesting that sharing in response to collaboration may be more evident at slightly later ages in development.
For those who are curious, the authors also found that chimpanzees, one of humans’ two nearest primate relatives, tend not to share equally in response to collaborative efforts. This suggests that humans may have evolved a unique sense of distributive justice not shared by other species, especially since other closely related species like chimpanzees rely very little on collaboration for subsistence.
Pretty cool, huh?
These results are quite promising, and to all you parents and/or caregivers, there are plenty of practical situations in which to test this strategy!
For example, let’s go back to our initial scenario with the pizza. It’s the following Saturday afternoon. Your neighbor once again asks you to host pizza day for Mark and Sarah. This time, you are prepared. Instead of having the kids individually prepare ingredients for the pizza, you have them work together to stretch the dough and gather the ingredients. I bet there’s a good chance you’ll see them share the spoils of their hard work more equally!
Let’s take another example. The next time you buy a Lego set for your children, encourage them to build the Legos together as a team. If the findings from Hamann et al. hold true, then the children may be more inclined to share playing time with the end product. Or, if two children both want to play a single-player puzzle game on the iPad, have them work together to solve each puzzle. Hopefully, each child will want to take turns holding the actual device. Alternatively, if a preschool teacher promises candy for completing a simple math worksheet, have children work together so that they will hopefully want to share their rewards! There are many situations in which this strategy may very well prove to be effective, and it never hurts to give it a try!
*And just a quick disclaimer — the results here don’t necessarily suggest that collaboration in a single instance will have long-term benefits on a child’s desire to share. While this might be true, this strategy may more readily address specific scenarios, which is still immensely valuable.*
In summary, the key take-home message is that collaboration may be an effective strategy to promote sharing among young children. Childhood is a critical developmental stage in which social interactions become increasingly important, since interacting with peers and adults is a crucial way in which children learn emotional, social, and cognitive skills (Killen, 1991). Thus, it is critical that parents and/or other caregivers are aware of ways to promote prosocial behaviors, such as sharing, for their children.
To this end, the research presented here is significant for child development since it adds to our understanding of ways to promote altruistic behavior during early childhood. So, if you ever find yourself, a friend, parent, or teacher asking the following question — “what is a well-cited intervention that I can try with my children to promote sharing in a specific instance?” — it might not be a bad idea to have them cooperate first! This tip, in addition to other prosocial-promoting strategies you come across, may yield promising benefits for a child’s development in the long run.
Hamann, K., Warneken, F., Greenberg, J. R., & Tomasello, M. (2011). Collaboration encourages equal sharing in children but not in chimpanzees. Nature, 476(7360), 328–331.
Killen, M. (1991). Social and moral development in early childhood. In W. M. Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development, Vol. 1. Theory; Vol. 2. Research; Vol. 3. Application (pp. 115–138). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Knapp, M., Scott, S., & Davies, J. (1999). The cost of antisocial behaviour in younger children. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 4(4), 457–473.
Mussen, P., & Eisenberg-Berg, N. (1977). Roots of caring, sharing, and helping: The development of pro-social behavior in children. WH Freeman.
Paulus, M., & Moore, C. (2014). The development of recipient-dependent sharing behavior and sharing expectations in preschool children. Developmental psychology, 50(3), 914.