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Encouraging sharing is one of the most important ways that we can teach our children and support them in what’s known as prosocial behavior—caring acts that benefit others.

Sharing, helping, donating, volunteering: all of these prosocial behaviors are picked up from a very young age.

Empathy starts earlier than you might think. Psychology studies have shown that babies can display empathy before their first birthday. 

By their second year, they are starting to help one another and play cooperatively. 

By the age of three, children are starting to object to behavior they consider to be wrong.

Young children aren’t acting for personal reward; their prosocial behavior is motivated by a genuine desire to help others.

A 2013 study published in Infancy journal by child developmental psychology researchers Robert Hepach and Amrisha Vaish, found that young children aren’t acting for personal reward; their prosocial behavior is motivated by a genuine desire to help others.

As parents, this behavior is something we want to foster to ensure our little ones are growing into kind, caring, polite adults. 

Here are four principles of sharing to think about:  

Children Are More Likely To Share When…

1. It’s their own choice

Children who decide on their own to share a valuable resource are more likely to share again in future, researchers at Cornell University in the U.S.A have shown. 

But when the three- and four-year-olds they looked at were told to share, they were more reluctant.

If you force a child to share, they lose something of value and in return experience a negative emotion.

The study concluded that children learn prosocial behavior more effectively when they are allowed to make the difficult choice to share for themselves, and that in doing so they come to view themselves as ‘sharers’. 

It makes sense: If you force a child to share, they lose something of value and in return experience a negative emotion (and they haven’t truly shared – you have)!

But if you instead support them to make the decision to share the item, the emotion is positive and they will want to experience the joy of giving again.

Two young boys playing together

Children are motivated by a genuine desire to help each other

 

2. We make it fair

So many parents instruct their children to share on demand, but this isn’t always constructive. 

Sharing is about being fair, and the way we approach sharing, in many cases, isn’t fair at all.

As adults, we understand that we can’t have something instantly just because we want it. We must respect others’ property, and wait our turn if we want to use it. 

This is the same attitude we need to foster in our children.

Heather Shumaker, author of It’s Ok Not to Share, emphasizes positive assertiveness: teaching your child that taking turns and letting them set their own boundaries will allow them to experience true generosity and learn behavior control.

Children want to make other people happy—it’s just a matter of letting them realize that for themselves.

So instead of just telling our little one to ‘share, please’ we can teach them to share when they’ve finished playing, or that they must wait their turn for a go with a toy.

3. They have the opportunity to make moral judgements

Children as young as three are capable of evaluating and processing what they see before coming to a decision, especially when it relates to sharing.

A 2014 study from The University of Chicago in the U.S. measured children’s brain activity when they were shown scenarios depicting either helpful or harmful acts. 

Afterwards, they had to decide whether to share with another child.

The findings reveal that children make immediate moral judgements of situations and decide to be generous based on careful evaluation of what they see.

As parents, this is an important reminder to lead by example with moral behavior. 

When we see immoral or inappropriate actions, we can use it as a discussion point and learning opportunity for our offspring. 

Wooden letters spell the word 'Play'

Instead of dictating ‘share, please,’ we can teach our children to share when they’ve finished playing

 

4. Adults discuss and reinforce behavior

When it comes down to it, sharing has everything to do with empathy. 

There are several ways kids can learn about empathy—such as books and TV shows—but the caregiver’s role is pivotal here.

Not only do children model the adults around them, but many studies show that a child’s empathetic behavior stems from that of the parent towards the child.

Empathetic feelings can be both positive and negative and it’s important to acknowledge you can experience both.

Talk with your little person about their feelings and desires, brainstorming ways to handle these. 

Discussing these different emotions and mental states will help them develop a positive attitude to sharing.

Likewise, it’s helpful to discuss other people’s emotions whenever you get the chance.

When someone looks sad on TV, in a book, or in the supermarket, the whole family unit can get involved in thinking about how that person must be feeling. 

This helps them identify with other people’s emotions and feel more connected with others. 

Ultimately, teaching sharing is about getting down to our children’s level and reminding them to think about others’ feelings at every opportunity. 

In this way, we will be supporting them towards making an autonomous decision—to help, to share, and ultimately, to care