Young children may know about the importance of sharing without yet being able to act on that knowledge.
Promoting cooperative social behavior is a — perhaps the — major task of preschool teachers. But when teaching children to be nice and to share with and include one another, teachers have to contend with the fact that young children often do not want to share or take turns. When children encounter a conflict between enhancing their own interests and sharing with others, the former is likely to win out unless adults intervene. This is not to say preschoolers are selfish beasts; they certainly can be generous and caring, comforting and helpful, but they are also likely to display greed and indifference. The preschooler who, when asked, acknowledges that fairness demands equality will, when her emotions are aroused, also insist that she needs/deserves more of the coveted objects. When confronting scarce resources, children’s sense of fairness blurs with their selfishness, with selfishness dominating: “I want it so I should have it.”
Children’s natural egoism — based on their inability to appreciate others’ perspectives — is likely to prevail unless adults set stringent rules about sharing and faithfully monitor them. But there is a danger in constantly enforcing a strict policy, particularly when accompanied by sanctions: Children may comply without acquiring conviction. They do what they are told from fear, not from a rational understanding of others’ rights. Teachers, therefore, may continuously press children to be nice without altering the emotions and motivations behind their actions
So what’s a teacher to do? Children in group situations can’t trample on one another or hog equipment. How strongly should the adults push the niceness agenda when it meets with resistance? To what extent should educators override developmental trends?
Before tackling this question, let’s consider how empathy, the source of socially generous behaviors, develops and how empathy relates to fairness. We can then examine how a group of preschoolers, exposed both at home and school to heavy diets of be-nice injunctions, actually behave in sharing situations. Finally, we will consider how to reconcile the twin objectives of respecting young children’s natural development and socializing them.
Babies have an instinctive ability to perceive and react to the emotional states of others. This emanates from the Darwinian imperative of mutual protection — for how could the species survive if we did not assist one another? Children younger than age two respond with grave concern to others’ distress and often offer help. The early benevolent acts are spontaneous and independent of social encouragement or rewards; however, the motive is to protect the child’s own empathically triggered discomfort, not that of the suffering victim. Thus, by the end of her first year, when hearing the cries of another, a child will seek personal comfort by sucking her own thumb and burying her head in her own mother’s lap.
By the middle of the second year, as children become better able to differentiate self and other, their egocentric empathic distress shifts to veridical empathic distress (Hoffman, 2000). So, for example, a two-year-old child will initially try to relieve his friend’s misery by offering his own teddy (the object providing him most comfort), and only when that fails to comfort will he proffer his friend’s teddy instead. These charming gestures of empathic concern are not due to a sympathetic understanding of the other’s plight and a desire to help, much less an understanding of reciprocal social obligations. These empathic responses of helping and consolation do not require subjugation of self-interest. Further, because young children’s grasp of the world is based on emotions, not reason, their generosity is unstable, unreliable, and not necessarily the norm. Empathy cannot be counted on to produce fairness, as in sharing (Davidov et al., 2013; Decety et al., 2016; Eisenberg, Spinrad, & Knafo-Noam, 2006; Tomasello, 2016; Zahn-Waxler et al., 1992). Only gradually, as cognitive development catches up to the emotional, do early motivators — raw empathy and self-distress — yield to objective ideas of fairness. Children are well into elementary school (around eight years old) before they habitually factor principles of reciprocity, just desserts, and benevolence into their responses (Damon 1977, 1988; Egan, 1988; Hoffman, 2000).
One often hears preschoolers complain, “That’s not fair.” For them, fairness is subsumed into self-interest. Fairness is equated with getting what I want; unfairness with not getting what one wants and therefore deserves. So a child will assert she should have more time on the swing because she wants it, and she will not be convinced by arguments of equality. While she knows, and can recite, the rational basis for sharing, once her emotions are aroused, rationality dissolves. Adults need to be savvy about how preschoolers try — and fail — to reconcile their knowledge about fairness with their feelings and actions. Knowing the norms does not predict behavior, and when young children do follow the rules, they may well be making a pragmatic, not a moral, decision (“I’ll get into trouble if I don’t”).
In a classic series of experiments, William Damon (1977, 1988) explored how preschoolers go through logical contortions to justify their self-serving desires when making decisions about sharing. At age four, when asked hypothetically how to distribute rewards, most admit sharing is right but not necessarily required. A four-year-old, for example, argues he should get more ice cream than his sister because he likes and wants it more. Another child argues that she is entitled to more blue chips than her friend because, “I like blue” or “I have a blue dress at home” (Damon, 1988, p. 38). Children might also claim they should get what they want because they are the fastest runner — or a boy (Damon, 1977, 1988; Tomasello, 2016). These children are bolstering their egocentric subjective justification with quasi-objective criteria, offering explanations that are, in fact, illogical, untrue, and irrelevant.
Studies by Gertrud Nunner-Winkler probing children’s emotional reactions when what they know conflicts with what they want demonstrate the limited power of knowledge among young children (Nunner-Winkler, 1993, 1998, 2007; Nunner-Winkler & Sodian, 1988). While four-year-olds generally report that one shouldn’t steal because it is wrong, 85-90% nonetheless say stealing a bag of candy, for example, would feel good and not doing so would feel bad. The offender is happy even when (hypothetically) she causes clear physical harm (pushing a playmate off a swing), because she got what she wanted. To feel good when doing bad — or the happy victimizer phenomenon (Nunner-Winkler, 2007, p. 405) — is a well-replicated finding true of children through kindergarten. The pain of the victim is simply not calibrated into the pleasures received (Arsenio, Gold, & Adams, 2006).
The schism between right deeds and desires does not dissolve, according to Nunner-Winkler, until approximately age six; at that point, most children attribute bad feelings to wrongdoers and perceive moral rules as both motivating and binding. Damon found that, at around the same age, his subjects claimed distributions should be based on equality or merit (deservingness); those who worked the hardest, are the smartest or kindest should get more.
Preschool children, in short, are unable to fully absorb the interests of another (If I were the other person, what would I want?) or to assume a disinterested viewpoint (I want what’s best for all). Rather, the prevailing mind-set is, “Although it may be unfair for you to keep the swing when I want it, it’s perfectly fair for me to keep it when you want it.” The growth of social morality is gradual: It starts with unstable sympathy and empathy that drifts into egocentricity when a child’s own wants are involved. Not until they reach early elementary school age do children appreciate principles of equality and deservingness, and it is later still before they comprehend objective fairness independent of particular individuals (Tomasello, 2016).
Although researchers find a mature understanding of fairness takes years to develop, and the stages appear impervious to demographic variations, we wondered if intensive socialization could speed up the process — not just as a matter of children’s understanding but also as practice of elevating moral knowledge above emotional imperatives. Maya Rabinowitz’s association with a private Quaker school gave us an ideal opportunity to answer these questions. The school states, as its core testimonial, the belief that all people “are equally qualified to seek truth and to hear the voice of God. Every person deserves equal respect. For these reasons, we work against prejudice and discrimination and for equality”. The school strongly emphasizes sharing and the peaceful resolutions of disputes. The messages “take turns,” “share nicely,” and “include others” are constantly reiterated in the classrooms. Similar injunctions, we reasoned, were presumably echoed by the parents who selected this tuition-based schooling. To witness how well the children incorporated the message, we decided to observe children, inconspicuously, in free play and to interview a subset of them about stealing, sharing, and related topics.
Interviews and observations
We interviewed and observed children to determine whether these preschoolers, given the highly favorable context, would not only give the “right” answer to questions about stealing and sharing but also practice these norms in unsupervised play (where the teacher was present but uninvolved). The interview questions were borrowed and simplified from the protocols of Damon and Nunner-Winkler.
First, the interviewer asked the children about stealing: “If one day a friend had some candy in their coat pocket, and they put their coat in the coatroom, and nobody was looking, would it be OK for you to take your friend’s candy?” Then we asked, “How would it feel to take the candy?” The second set of questions concerned sharing. The interviewer presented individual children with small colored blocks from their classroom supply and directed them to select the best and worst color. The interviewer then made a big pile of favored blocks and a small pile of disfavored ones and asked, “If you had this nice big pile of (favorite) blocks and your friend only had this little pile of (disfavored) blocks, should you give some of your favored blocks to your friend? How many? How would that feel?”
The observations took place in the classroom during the half hour usually allotted to free play at the beginning of the school day. We visited sporadically over four months for an estimated 16-20 hours in the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten rooms. We conducted private interviews of 13 children (six boys and seven girls) as classroom schedules permitted.
Of the 13 children interviewed, in response to the questions about stealing, 12 said you should not take food from another person with one saying it was OK if you really wanted it. When asked how stealing would feel, six said it would feel bad, and six said it would feel good. (One answer could not be scored.) To the sharing questions, all said you should share (in varying amounts), and 12 said it would feel good to share (with one admitting it would feel both good and bad). Thus, while there was some equivocation on the pleasures of stealing, this select group of children reflected the standards they had been taught. They appeared to be slightly ahead of the Damon and Nunner-Winkler children, with a minority participating in the happy victimizer phenomenon.
Observations, however, told a different story. Generally, there were ample supplies for the children, and it was common to see them playing cooperatively on joint projects. However, under conditions of perceived scarcity, selfishness took hold and notions of fair distribution were abandoned. For example, when Niva was fighting with a boy over blocks, she argued, “I can’t give you any blocks, these are all the blocks I have” (though she had more than the boy). This directly contradicted her interview response: “You should give three good blocks if you have a lot of good ones, and your friend doesn’t.” In several instances, one child simply seized a coveted block that was the subject of dispute, hid it behind their back, or absconded with it. As in the research literature, the justification for not sharing was the child’s desire or perceived need (“I really need it,” or “I want the pieces to just be mine”). The victim sometimes brought arguments for sharing into the discussion, but to no avail:
Boy: I need some squares.
Girl: You have more than us, so we’re not giving you any.
Boy: But you’re not sharing . . . I’m telling.
Here, the boy flips the concept of sharing. To rationalize his own desires, he argues that even though the girl has fewer squares, she should nonetheless release some. Also, as Damon observed, the children make assertions that are contrary to the facts, to rationalize their positions. For example, when three girls were accumulating dolls for their dollhouse, one of them (falsely) claimed that she deserved more because “I never get any.”
Thus, our findings parallel those in the literature: For the most part, under interview conditions, these children offered the socially approved responses, but when squabbles over possessions arose during free play, they were not inclined to share. We conclude that the tendency of preschoolers to act on personal interest when emotionally aroused is resistant to even the most thorough instruction; they become heedless of others’ feelings and put aside what they have learned. Indeed, in all observed interactions, we never saw a single clash between children resolved by voluntary sharing. So what should educators do about this discordance between knowing and acting?
Helping children enact their values
Although children are by nature empathic, it is a serious mistake to believe such feelings will translate reliably into rational fair behavior. Fairness requires holding onto the perspective of the other when confronted with strong egotistical desires, a process that takes years and probably awaits developmental maturation (Hand, 2018). Moral motivation requires replacing what Harry Frankfort (1988) has called first-order desires with second-order ones. An altruistic act motivated by spontaneous empathy is of the first order and rises to the second order only when done out of conviction. Those who have “learned” the morality of fairness from assiduous preschool teachers still seem unable, even in the most advantageous settings, to live by these standards. They simply care more about satisfying themselves than others. So what to do with young children congregated in group settings where conflict is inevitable?
One school of thought argues that the “limited sympathies” (Warnock, 1971) of the young can be leveraged through what Michael Hand and others call induction discipline. This means inducing understanding by explaining to the child how his actions affect others (“you made him cry by taking his toy”). This will help perspective-taking take root (Eisenberg et al., 2015). Induction alone, however, is insufficient; adults must use their power to enact some sort of penalty so that the child will “be brought to feel bad by the severity of my response” (Hand, 2018, p. 33). Yet adults must be careful to assert enough pressure to get the child’s attention without producing hostility and fear, which will lead the child to revert to earlier behavior when power is withdrawn (Damon, 1988; Hoffman, 2000).
A variant on induction, developmental discipline (Nucci, 2006), favors trust and warmth, instead of power, the argument being that punishment and withholding privileges are negatively related to prosocial behavior, though they may achieve short-term compliance (Dahl & Killen, 2018, Eisenberg et al, 2015). Given that the goal of moral development is for children to construct and adopt their own notions of fairness, rather than docilely accept adult standards, children must have opportunities to resolve conflicts when they arise and to reflect on and discuss what fairness looks like in that instance.
In arbitrating between these options, and others, one must not lose sight of the developmental dimension. A three- to four-year-old is not the person she will be when eight to nine years old. What may be wrong and require a penalty at the latter age is innocent behavior at the earlier. Niva, who refuses to share her blocks may be the epitome of generosity in a few years, automatically giving up her coveted haul because she has internalized fairness. Interventions that override this developmental progression make the same mistake as those who insist that the preschool child who cannot learn to read requires intensive remediation when, if one waits a few years, there will be no difficulties. While undoubtedly there are cultural variations in the attainment of objective fairness depending on the relative importance of the value and the effort made to instill it, here we wish to emphasize the developmental progression. The young child is simply not sufficiently rational and is too emotionally driven to live by the moral code of sharing.
Given the limitations of the preschooler, we offer, in no particular order, some classroom suggestions:
- Keep expectations for sharing modest. It may be useful to explain and discuss why sharing is important and to model it, but it is equally important not to regularly expect follow-through without adult supervision.
- Don’t shame or punish a child who behaves unfairly.
- Stress behavior rather than moral wrongness. “When you play you must take turns. Everyone gets to have 10 blocks, and five crayons. You get more only after everyone else has that many.” Inevitably arguments will still occur, but they will be more likely to center on breaches of the behavioral rules, not on fairness.
- Spark empathy. In addition to, or rather than, asking a child “how would you feel if . . .” act out powerful scenes, read stories, or review real experiences in which one child is treated unfairly by having less than or the worst of . . . . Then talk about the concrete situation. We have a better chance of reaching young children through their feelings than through their reasoning.
- Attend to the victim rather than the perpetrator. Ask, “Niva isn’t willing to share with you; what else can you do? What friends might join you?”
- Let it go when possible. Preschoolers have short attention spans. During our observations, we noted that complaining children were often distracted or forgot their demands when attracted by another object or activity. Sometimes, the initial “I need the red block” seemed mostly an assertion of power that dissipated when another child resisted.
- Get involved to determine fairness if the dispute does not dissolve of its own accord, but there’s no need to accompany the imposed resolution with disapproval.
The bottom line is that it’s fine to establish rules for play, remind and exhort children to follow them, and praise them when they do, but when young children slip into me-first attitudes, it should not be perceived as moral failure.
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