Toddlers aren’t known for their ability to share happily. This is why the findings from a 2012 Canadian study of toddler generosity are so surprising. Prompted by earlier research suggesting that giving makes adults happier than receiving, researchers at two BC universities set up an experiment to try and tease out whether the same is true for toddlers. As it turns out, the answer is yes.
“Research has shown that adults are happier when they spend money on other people, as opposed to themselves,” explains Lara Aknin, an assistant professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University and a co-author of the study. “We were curious — is this an innate feature of humanity, or is it something we learn as we get older? Because anybody who’s been to kindergarten has learned it’s good to share, we thought we’d look at kids before they go through the school system.”
The scientists set up a little game with 20 toddlers, aged 22 to 24 months. An experimenter gave each child a cup containing several treats, such as fish-shaped crackers. After a few minutes, the toddler was asked to give one of his or her own treats to a monkey puppet, which they responded to enthusiastically. A moment later, the experimenter provided an extra treat from a separate stash and asked the child to give it to the puppet. Researchers then rated each child’s responses, based on how much he or she smiled while both receiving and sharing the treats. The bottom line? “Not only were the children happier giving than receiving, but they were happiest when they got to give their own treats away,” Aknin observes. What’s more, while kids were only asked to part with a single treat from their private stockpiles, many spontaneously offered up more than one.
According to another of the study co-authors, Kiley Hamlin, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, kids begin sharing around one year of age in the “here-Mom-have-one-of-my-soggy-Cheerios” variety, and don’t graduate to the “you-can-play-with-my-toy-so-I-won’t-get-in-trouble” type until around five or so. “Kids like making other people happy,” Hamlin says. “That desire is seemingly always there.” But toddlers are still developing the skills needed to happily share a single toy (an understanding of time and turn-taking, for instance).
One way of dealing with a non-sharer is to nudge the process along with “when-then” statements, says Andrea Nair, a London, Ont., psychotherapist and parenting educator. Say, “When you share, then you can play.” The holidays in particular, when new toys are so exciting, can be hard. Practise taking turns before present-opening days. Always ham it up when you’re demonstrating sharing with your child, his or her siblings or other adults, and emphasize how happy you are when another person shares something with you. If your child balks at sharing, or snatches a toy from a sibling, explain that most kids get angry or sad when others don’t share. Food is also a great tool to teach sharing and problem-solving skills. Try saying, “Uh-oh! There’s only one cookie left. You want some and I want some. What are we going to do?”
There are kids who never master sharing, even when they’re old enough to know better, says Nair. “Kids who never learn to share likely aren’t required to,” she says.
But we can all take comfort in the news that this research shows even our littlest tykes aren’t nearly as naturally selfish as we may have assumed.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2012 with the headline "Happy to share," p. 70.
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