Why Sharing is So Painful for Preschoolers

child development and social skills
Kids' sense of ownership is very strong

Insisting that little kids share — it’s one of my parenting pet peeves. The idea that toddlers and young preschoolers should rotate their possessions back and forth is expecting something of them that we don’t even do ourselves.

“Okay, you play with this for five minutes and then let your friend have a turn,” is like saying to an adult, “okay, you read the first chapter of that novel, then give it to me so I can have a turn.” A slinky, a Lego tower, a book, or a ball — to a child in the moment, they’re just as important as any of our favorite pastimes.

Of course, it’s also a developmental issue. Little kids are still working on the concept of empathy and putting themselves in the shoes of another person (that’s why I think it’s helpful to narrate some sharing situations for them, like to say, “it looks like so-and-so is really interested in your toy. Whenever you’re done playing, we’ll let him know.”) Talking your kids through how their actions affect other people seems more important than imposing a sharing rule.

But a few days ago, Canadian researchers reported on a finding that gives us another clue as to why objects and possessions stir up such battles for preschoolers:

The researchers showed that preschoolers have an innately stronger sense of property ownership than do adults.

In one of their experiments, they showed groups of preschoolers and adults a scenario in which one child was the “user” of a crayon and the other was the “owner” of that crayon. When the owner said she wanted the crayon back from the user, the experimenters asked the two groups who should get the coveted object. Seventy five percent of preschoolers said the owner, whereas only 20 percent of adults said the owner. Adults were more likely to think the owner should share the object.

When the same scenario was repeated, but the groups were told that the school owned the crayon (not either of the kids), almost everyone in both groups said the user should keep the crayon.

So preschoolers cling tightly to the idea of who owns toys. I’m thinking about how much more sensitive my son can be about his own toys when we have a play date at home, versus his much more flexible self when we have a play date at someone else’s house. If kids feel ownership over something, it’s inherently harder to part with it.

Do you think kids should be required to share?

Image:  flickr

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