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A recent study found that three-year-olds know all about sharing. They just don’t want to do it.

Preschoolers were given stickers and then were asked if they would share them with another child. The usual answer: “No.”

But these children knew the importance of sharing and, in fact, they hoped that other children would share stickers with them. They were quite aware that sharing is the right thing to do. But they hated doing it. In fact, they knew from the start of their conversation with the researcher that they had no intention of sharing. They intended to keep all their stickers themselves.

Three-year-olds just don’t like to share.

Instead, they like stickers. They really wanted the stickers the researchers gave them and they wanted to keep all of the stickers they could. They hoped to get more. Stickers, stickers, stickers. They couldn’t bear the thought of giving them up.

Older kids, about age 8, were happy to share. Even if they liked what they had, they understood that the fair thing to do is to share. They said they wanted other kids to be happy.

So there are a couple pieces of good news here. First, young children are quite capable of understanding the idea of sharing, even if they’re not very good at doing it. This means that parents should continue to teach young kids how to share and to support them when they do share.

Second, children do grow into acting with more fairness and compassion. Even if they seem selfish and greedy as three-year-olds, by second grade children will likely be nicer to each other and act less like hoarders.

The bad news is that learning to share takes time. Like most skills, it takes time for children to master sharing and to be able to consider others people’s feelings. Parents shouldn’t feel frustrated or embarrassed by their preschoolers’ struggles to share but should continue to offer opportunities to practice.

It might help, too, to ask three-year-olds to share things they are not passionate about. Eight-year-olds are a bit less-invested in stickers than preschoolers are. Asking a child to share the sand in the sandbox, instead of the best shovel, may get more compliance with a lot less fuss.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.