Sharing makes young children happy - just don't force them

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It's a dog-eat-dog world and we're often told that everyone is out for themselves. There are times when this is never more obvious than in childhood, where the learned veneers of amiability and appearing generous are yet to form around a person's true character.

While it's a harsh concept to swallow - particularly when it comes to kids - it turns out that children's reluctance to share at times isn't such a bad thing. And according to one study, the key is to let their generosity emerge naturally without forcing them.

Basically, sharing makes them happy, but being forced to share does not.

Dr Zhen Wu and other researchers studied the emotional rewards of sharing in a group of 60 kids aged 3 and 5, publishing the results in Frontiers in Psychology.

Children were divided into two groups: one where sharing stickers was voluntary, and they other where they were obliged to share them. Their facial expressions of satisfaction were measured.

The children shared more frequently when they were told they had to, but their satisfaction levels measured low. The most happiness came from the children who chose to share their stickers with those who had none.

"So it seems that the motivation to give does count and it also suggests that it is unrealistic to expect a very young child to share under pressure and be happy about it!" explained Dr Wu.

It also explains why people do things for others at great personal cost, and with no obvious benefit to themselves. The emotional reward simply isn't there when giving is attached to obligation.

The authors say the experiment "enriches our understanding of the relation between generosity and happiness" and deepens knowledge about social behaviours being motivated by different things. The study's limitations lie in potentially unseen social pressures the children may have been experiencing when voluntarily sharing the stickers.

Dr Wu says they would like to extend the study to look at multiple acts of benevolence. "We need to examine how an act of generosity leads to happiness that in turn prompts another act of giving."