Share and Share Alike


My mother never taught me to share…that is, until she first taught me about private property. It’s a wise insight, which few adults share.

How many times have we seen an adult offer a toy or treat, and place it in the no-man’s-land between two absorbed four-year-olds, admonishing them to “share”? Their eyes light up with wonder; then, the wonder seamlessly metamorphoses into greed. Hands dart, each kid grasping to arrogate the goody to himself. But only one succeeds.

The loser, suddenly realizing he’s missed out, looks around perplexed, weighing his chances of liberating the goody from the other kid. Depending on relative size and age, he either makes a bold grab for the goody or starts bawling loudly in the direction of an adult, hoping for vindication. It’s only natural — the tragedy of the commons in miniature.

Sometimes, the adult has an inkling that one essential step might be missing from the lesson of sharing when it is taught this way; that is, one must own something before one can share it. So the adult adds a necessary but insufficient bit to the lesson: she’ll hand the goody to one child in a pretended ritual of conveyance, while at the same time insisting that he must share it. In other words, the treat isn’t really his — its . . . who knows?

Such mixed signals can only create conflict. The kid, believing the treat is his, refuses to give it up. So the adult intervenes, forcibly taking it from the now-bereft child and handing it over to the other kid, meanwhile lecturing both on the virtues of sharing.

There’s a perverse lesson here. The kid who didn’t originally get the goody learns the benefits of having an authority figure forcibly redistributing largesse from one person to another. The other kid learns — as Jimmy Carter once so eloquently put it — that “life isn’t fair” (not a bad lesson in some other context).

But a necessary prerequisite to sharing is still ownership, i.e., private property. We can see from the above examples that ownership is instinctual; it must not be undermined by taking the gift away after it’s been given.

When a child is given something, the adult should emphasize that the gift is the child’s to do with as he pleases, that no one can take the gift from him. This teaches the child the sanctity of private property; like his own, other children’s things are off limits. This is a lesson much more important than sharing, for it teaches integrity.

Sharing, by definition, is a voluntary act; if it’s not voluntary, it’s simply extortion. The only way to teach a child to share is by example — being careful not to cross the line into guilt — a huge temptation.

It can take a while to achieve the desired results. After all, ownership, as a new experience, must first be savored — for an indefinite period of time — in order to be properly imprinted. Only then can the concept of sharing be introduced. Even then, there is no guarantee that sharing will take place, because sharing is, by definition, a voluntary act.

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Mr. Miller, Good points all!

You write, "The only way to teach a child to share is by example . . ."; this is true. When we are generous with our belongings and our time and our energy, our children will likely follow in kind. We can encourage this. We can also show them that there is a limit to generosity; this limit resides at the point at which "gifts or sharing" become a detriment to the giver or to the receiver or to both. This is often hard to learn except by seeing adults around us in action and, perhaps, by discussion and preparation, when the occasions present themselves. We can also, of course, teach our children it is wrong to take by force.

In my experience, it helps to prepare children for visits by others. Ask them whether there are some toys or other belongings they would like to share. If so, explain that these will be specified for others to play with, so long as they handle them respectfully. Explain that if someone is misusing an item, it is desirable to ask him or her to stop and to put the item away if necessary or to let someone else have a turn.

Ask your children to put items they don't wish to share into a closet or on a high shelf, ahead of the visits. If they don't wish to share anything, remind them they will need to keep their bedroom door(s) closed and play elsewhere.

Explain that if another child wants to play with something that is not in the "share" collection, it is okay to be honest and say that the item is very special and that it isn't shared. Suggest to your children they can discuss the item with the admirer, explaining how he or she could acquire one or talking about its virtues, etc.

Also, to avoid unnecessarily hurt feelings, remind your children not to publicly agree to share special items with one child but not another. And if visits by children are frequent, parents might want to purchase good quality toys and games at yard sales and designate these for guests.

Remind your children that all the same rules apply when they are visiting friends' homes, that they should mentally put themselves in the place of the people who live there and afford them the same respect they would like to receive.

My parents taught their four children this approach, mainly by example. I used this approach with my three children. It is kind and effective and teaches respect for property along with compassion for others.

Robert Miller

Wow! You've put the finishing touches on my observation. Only a truly engaged parent could have discovered the finer nuances.

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