Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

It's Not Fair, I Don't Want to Share: When Child Development and Teacher Expectations Clash: Young Children May Know about the Importance of Sharing without Yet Being Able to Act on That Knowledge

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

It's Not Fair, I Don't Want to Share: When Child Development and Teacher Expectations Clash: Young Children May Know about the Importance of Sharing without Yet Being Able to Act on That Knowledge

Article excerpt

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 empathie 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; 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. …

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