Published by CELA on 10 Sep, 2018

Do as I say, not as I do, is an old adage.  Has it outlived its time in a children’s learning setting? How much should children be expected to share their toys, for example, when adults prize ownership and privacy above many other values in our community?

By CELA writer Margaret Paton

One of your colleagues asks to borrow your car. It’s not a work car. She wants and needs your personal car and she expects you to share it with her.
Your eyebrows go up and you say, politely we hope, ‘no’.

Hearing this conversation, children in your service might be confused. They have to share their cars, why don’t you?

Forced to share

So, why encourage children to share objects and experiences which are precious to them when we don’t and won’t share ours as adults?

Psychology lecturer Rachael Sharman wrote about the issue in The Conversation, saying: ‘On the surface it seems like a fair point – it makes little sense to teach a child to follow a value system that will not be required in their adult years.’

Her story talks about a trend in parenting – dictate less and let children behave naturally with the law of the jungle prevailing, so to speak. No modelling or explicit teaching needed here. It’s even policy in this US preschool.

But how would that work in practical terms? And isn’t sharing one of the outcomes we hope for in social and emotional skills development?

Why we need to share

So, yes. Sharing is ‘good’ for children’s social and emotional development.

It’s a lifelong skill they need to embrace to fit into society, work, relationships, recreation and play – in short, life.

Being able to share resources is critical to co-operating with others and indeed our survival in social groups, say Nadia Chernyak and David Sobel in the Social Development journal [1].

Sharman says: ‘Sharing appears to be a human trait rooted in evolution, probably to ensure the best possible chance of survival of a whole group. And research has shown that children who display “prosocial” traits such as sharing demonstrate better outcomes in terms of academic achievement and popularity.’

Sharing through the ages

So, when do children get a grip on the art of sharing?

Typically from age three, children will be developing their understanding of sharing, although many still find it a challenge, according to the Raising Children website. There may be some innate traits that shape our personal ability to share, too. Some children are able to exhibit sharing from as young as eight months old [2].

Regardless of calendar age, most children are capable of learning to share. Children with social delays or deficits can learn sharing behaviours and ‘these behaviours may generalise across contexts and maintain over time’, says a study in the Journal of Behavioral Education [3].

There are lessons to be learned from sharing, but there are lessons to be learned from missing out, too.

As Dr Laura Markham says on her site Aha! Parenting, perhaps the empty-handed child should be encouraged to work through their emotions, even cry if they need to, to help them deal with it and develop resilience.

Sharing, taking turns, and cooperation

Sharing is just one way children learn to balance their own needs with those of another child or a group.  Taking turns has many of the characteristics of sharing but relies more on patience than altruism, while learning to cooperate with others teaches children that some things can best be achieved by combining resources and skills rather than working alone.

The KidsMatter resource on Learning Positive Friendship Skills has this list of ways adults can help children learn about sharing, taking turns and cooperating:

There are many ways adults can encourage children to take turns, some examples are:

  • Presenting give and take interactions with babies (eg when the baby smiles, smile back; when the baby makes a small sound make the sound back and then wait for the baby to take a turn). This is the beginning of the give and take of social interaction talk and then I wait and listen and you talk, then it is my turn again and so on.
  • Older babies love to play peek-a-boo (eg hold up a rug in front of your face and then look over it and say ‘peek-a-boo’, as the baby gets the idea give them the rug to take a turn).
  • Rolling a ball backwards and forwards between you.
  • Blowing kisses to each other, giving your baby time to take a turn.
  • When you are playing a game with your baby leave a space for them to signal you that they want to go on playing, then respond.
  • Take turns feeding each other.
  • Take turns putting blocks on a tower.
  • Join in your toddler’s game. Make some of the car or rocket noises, then wait and see if they want to take a turn.
  • Sing songs and leave a space for the toddler to put in some words or actions.

Values-driven approach

Not being able to share things will create major bumps in a child’s future life, but it’s not black and white. Sharing, we can learn, is about making a value judgment about fairness, appropriateness, and timing.

So rather than a blanket policy of you always have to share or you never have to share, we can look at when it’s good to share and when it’s all right not to share.

One way to figure that out is to focus on the perceived value of the object. Chernyak and Sobel’s study found that as adults ‘we often translate our concept of value (eg, a new car) into number (eg, money), but our findings suggest it is possible (and perhaps likely) that children view these dimensions as separate’.

What comes into play for children when sharing is the subjective and objective appreciations for the value of objects. And of course ‘value’ is a minefield in itself.

Who decides?

And this is the crux – who decides when children should or shouldn’t share? Are educators creating more work themselves by judging which child is entitled to the much-coveted object? Alternatively, are educators putting too much responsibility onto children who aren’t yet ready to make value judgements about sharing?

And what about the ‘obliging’ child who is always willing to share, are there some lessons for them about when it’s ok to be a bit selfish?

The quantity of conflicting advice and research available on the topic, as well as the personal experiences and values each educator and parent brings to the issue, suggests this is a subject that deserves solid discussion in the educational team at your service.

Have you got a policy on sharing? Share it in the comment box below!

[1] Chernyak, N & Sobel, DM. [2016]. Equal but not always fair: Value-laden sharing in pre-school aged children.  Social Development, Vol 25, No 2, pp340-351, May 2016.

[2] Lane, JD & Ledford, JR. [2015]. A Review of Interventions Designed to Increase Sharing Behaviors in Children with Social Delays or Deficits.  Journal of Behavioral Education. Vol 25, pp69-94, September 2015

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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