Kids are selfish. You don’t have to actually have one or be one to know this. Just a simple walk around a school playground and it becomes apparent that childhood really is a dog-eat-dog world. Although research has shown that we are born generous, in general this is a trait that must be taught. Recently a psychologist from the University of Chicago used neuroscience to help understand how children learn generosity, and perhaps even help parents “encourage” this trait during the holiday season.

Dr. Jean Decety and his partner Dr. Jason Cowell, also from the University of Chicago, recorded the brain activity of children doing certain generous activities in order to find where this trait originates in the young mind. The duo monitored the electrical brain activity of children aged 3 to 5 while they watched helpful and harmful scenes, and then again as they made decisions in the real world about how to treat a child they had never previously met.

According to the press release, the children were given 10 stickers as “rewards to keep for themselves.” They were then told that the next child coming in would not be getting any stickers and if they wanted they could leave stickers for them in a nearby box when no one was looking. On average, the children gave less than two of their 10 stickers away, but what most interested the psychologists was what they say occurred in the young brains during this generosity experiment.

"Moral evaluation in preschool children, similar to adults, is complex and constructed from both emotion and cognition," Decety said. "However, we found that only differences in neural markers of the latter predict actual generosity."

The researchers observed that the children’s moral judgment was heavily dependent on their brain activity while observing the helping and harming scenarios. The most important predictor of the child’s future generosity, however, was their reappraisal, or ability to reevaluate the situations they had viewed later on.

Cognitive reappraisal is a type of "emotional regulation technique," The Huffington Post reported. It involves an individual changing the way he thinks about a certain situation so that it is less emotionally draining.

Although the best way to teach generosity is to show it in your own behavior, according to the researchers, encouraging a children to reflect on certain emotional situations may help to stimulate generosity.

"These findings provide an interesting idea that by encouraging children to reflect upon the moral behavior of others, we may be able to foster generosity," Decety said.

Speak with your child about their feelings toward both positive and negative situations, because while you may want your child to share with others, at the end of the day the choice is ultimately up to them.

Souce: Cowell JM, Decety J. The Neuroscience of Implicit Moral Evaluation and Its Relation to Generosity in Early Childhood. Current Biology. 2014.