by Jared Wadley, University of Michigan
April 10, 2013 (TSR) – Children as young as three years old know they should share, but putting it into practice is another story.
A new study shows it’s not until the age of seven or eight that kids actually are willing to share equally, instead of keeping things for themselves—even when they know sharing is the right decision.
“There is abundant evidence that children are aware of fairness standards at a young age, yet young children often allocate resources unfairly when they stand to benefit,” says Craig Smith, a postdoctoral psychology researcher at the University of Michigan.
A new study designed to clarify the gap between children’s judgment and their behavior also sheds light on young children’s willpower when faced with the actual decision of sharing.
Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study included 102 children, whose ages ranged from three to eight. Each received four stickers. With their parents nearby, the children were asked how many stickers they should share with another child. Overall, they thought sharing was the right thing to do in this situation in which both parties were equally deserving.
“Irrespective of age, children judged that a norm of equal sharing applied to both themselves and others,” Smith says.
However, this is where the similarities between the age groups ended. When the moment occurred to share, younger children hoarded their stickers by offering less than an equal split. By seven to eight years of age, children shared equally.
The study suggests that the reason young children don’t share isn’t because they expect their peers to do the same. “In fact, they expected other children to share at least half of the stickers in the same situation,” Smith says.
Younger children may have limited self-control regarding fairness when faced with a conflict between sharing and their impulse to take for themselves—but they are able to correctly predict that they would share less than half.
“They did not suffer from a last-minute failure of willpower when faced with an actual decision,” Smith says. “Instead, the youngest kids were aware that they would share less than the norm when they were asked to predict how many stickers they would share.”
In the moment of sharing, the older children seemed to place more weight on the norm of equal sharing. “The oldest kids stayed focused on thoughts about fairness and kindness,” Smith says.
“But when the younger kids had a chance to share, they often became focused on their desire to have all of the stickers for themselves.”
Researchers from Boston University and Harvard University contributed to the study.