You’re at the park when another kid approaches yours and asks for the shovel they’re currently using to build a castle in the sand pit. Although your parenting alarms begin to go off as you see the decision of “no” forming on your child’s face, making your kid share their shovel isn’t the best way to encourage them. In fact, it might be the worst.

Sharing is a fundamental part of forming strong relationships, but you have to let children figure out its benefit. By understanding how your child processes generosity, you’ll be able to find ways to encourage them to share—without prying the shovel out of their hands.


Understanding the impact of choice

Studies have shown that being generous is something kids want to keep doing—especially when the choice feels hard and has an obvious positive impact on someone.

Cornell researchers tested ideas of generosity and sharing among children when they introduced Doggie, a sad puppet, to a group of 3- to 5-year-olds. The children were given stickers and divided into different groups: a group where they had the option of giving their favorite sticker to Doggie (but were not required to), a group where they either had to share their sticker with Doggie or throw it away, or a group where they were told by the researchers that they had to share.

“Children are frequently taught to share, be polite and be kind to others. In order to bring us closer to figuring out how to best teach children these skills, it is important to know which factors may aid in young children’s sharing behavior,” said Nadia Chernyak, a Cornell graduate student in the field of human development who helped to conduct the experiment. “Allowing children to make difficult choices may influence their sharing behavior by teaching them greater lessons about their abilities, preferences and intentions toward others.”

When the children were then introduced to Ellie, another sad puppet, the impact of the previous test was seen. If the children were part of the first group who gave the stickers to Doggie out of their own free will, they were more likely to want to share again—and were more generous with the amount they shared. By putting the choice to share in the hands of the children, they were more able to see and understand the impact of their generosity on those around them and therefore encouraged to continue being generous.

Chernyak explained, “You might imagine that making difficult, costly choices is taxing for young children or even that once children share, they don’t feel the need to do so again. But this wasn’t the case: Once children made a difficult decision to give up something for someone else, they were more generous, not less, later on.”

Ways to encourage generosity in children

Although the act of sharing is something your child needs to do on their own, there are ways you can promote generosity in them that will make the decision easier.

1. Praise sharing wherever you see it

Along with allowing your child to make the choice to share on their own, it’s also more effective to praise your child for sharing than to punish them for not. When you praise their good behavior, you’re validating their actions.

Similarly, look for examples of sharing all around you, whether it’s in movies or noting other children’s behavior. Call attention to how frequently others share—and how it positively affects the people they’re being generous with.

2. Discuss the importance of gratitude

Simply put, gratitude is good for you.

In a study conducted by the Greater Good Science Center, researchers chose a group of 300 people who were currently enrolled in counseling and therapy, the majority of who were being treated for anxiety and depression. They then separated their participants into three groups: one who wrote letters of gratitude, one who wrote about negative experiences, and one who did not write at all. The group who wrote letters of gratitude reported significantly better mental health even weeks after their writing exercises ended.

An important part of understanding generosity is for children to also understand what it is that they have to be thankful for. By discussing and bringing up all of the good things in their life, it will remind them of what (and who!) they have and why they’re important to them, refocusing them towards an abundance mindset.

Like the Greater Good Science Center suggests, you can have your children list the things that they’re grateful for by talking about them with you, drawing pictures, or writing them out (if they’re old enough).

3. Be generous parents

One of the earliest ways we can help children understand generosity is by having generous parents.

A paper published by University of Michigan’s psychiatry department examined how altruism was related to potential neurobiological and hormonal mechanisms. In it, they examined compassion and found “adults’ disposition of caring for others may have roots in their own early-life experiences with primary caregivers such that people who experienced quality parenting as children may express stronger compassion and altruistic behaviors towards others.”

That is to say, if your parents are “good” parents—kind, caring, and attentive—you’ll be more likely to readily express compassion and altruistic behaviors within your relationships as an adult.

It’s a phrase we hear often: “Children are sponges.” They can and will mimic the relationships they are surrounded by, the most fundamental influence being their caregivers. If you are generous in a way that children can see—such as through volunteering through local organizations, fixing broken things for your children, or helping a friend or family member move—your children will observe and understand these actions as both normal and rewarding.