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.