Telling kids to share their toys never seems to work, but psychologists say that allowing children to make a choice to sacrifice their own toys in order to share with someone else makes them share more. These new insights into child behaviors have been published in Psychological Science.
The experiments carried out in the study suggest that sharing when given a difficult choice leads children to see themselves in a new, more beneficent light. Perceiving themselves as people who like to share makes them more likely to act in a prosocial manner in the future.
Previous research has shown that this idea - the over-justification effect - explains why rewarding children for sharing can backfire. Children come to perceive themselves as people who don't like to share since they had to be rewarded for doing so. Because they don't view themselves as "sharers" they are less likely to share in the future.
"Making difficult choices allows children to infer something important about themselves: In making choices that aren't necessarily easy, children might be able to infer their own prosociality," said psychological scientist and study co-author Nadia Chernyak.
To test this idea, the researchers introduced 3 to 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 and putting the sticker away, while children in a third group were required by the researcher to share.
Later on, all the children were introduced to Ellie, another sad puppet. They were given the option of how many stickers to share (up to three). The kids who earlier made the difficult choice to help Doggie shared more stickers with Ellie. The children who were initially confronted with an easy choice or who were required to give their sticker to Doggie, on the other hand, shared fewer stickers with Ellie.
"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," Chernyak explained. "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."
She adds that given the high amount of emphasis we place on choice during early childhood, it is important to delineate specifically what choice might do - and not do - for young children.
"Children are frequently taught to share, be polite, and be kind to others. In order to bring us closer to one day figuring out how to best teach children these skills, it is important to figure out which factors may aid in young children's sharing behavior," Chernyak concluded. "Allowing children to make difficult choices may influence their sharing behavior by teaching them greater lessons about their abilities, preferences, and intentions towards others."
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Source: Association for Psychological Science