Small children aren't great at sharing, as any parent or preschool teacher knows. But little kids get cut a lot of slack on the presumption that they don't know any better.
Well, the jig is up. Researchers have found that 3-year-olds know darned well that sharing is the right thing to do. But when given the chance to share stickers with another child, they hoarded instead.
That flipped around by age 8, the children shared stickers, giving half to another child.
In the past few years, developmental psychologists have been intensely interested in how humans develop altruism and other positive behaviors.
Craig Smith, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, is trying to nail down when and how those altruistic impulses develop. So he gave 102 children the chance to share, and tracked what they did and said.
"Maybe little kids think, 'I know I should share equally, but why should I?' " Smith says. "There's a sort of cynicism."
Nope. Smith's littlest test subjects were optimists, predicting that other children would share stickers with them.
Well, maybe they really meant to share, but at the last minute just couldn't stand to see those brightly colored scratch-and-sniff stickers go. They were too impulsive.
But when asked, the youngest children correctly predicted all along that they weren't going to share. It was like a miniature version of the reality show Hoarders.
"They're showing a funny sense of self-awareness," Smith tellls Shots. His results were published online in the journal PLOS One.
In interviews with the children, it became clear that they had vastly different approaches to the prospect of giving two of their four stickers to someone else, depending on their age. The 3-year-olds got sucked into desire, while the older children stayed focused on fairness.
"The littlest kids were talking about what they wanted. 'I love stickers, I want stickers, I don't have enough,' " Smith says. "The oldest kids were saying, 'I think it would be fair if I did it this way, it would be the nice thing to do, I want the other kids to be happy.'"
It's enough to make one wonder if some investment bankers never made it out of preschool.
The good news for parents is that the children do get better at sharing with age. "It's not something that parents or adults have to stress out about; it comes online," he says.