Time and time again we hear about the virtues of “modeling behavior” for children, in an effort to teach them how the real world operates. Parents are usually very diligent about teaching some of these difficult lessons, particularly the ones involving socialization, to their children. However, when it comes to sharing (one of the more common subjects of conflict between adults and children) parents fall miserably short in modeling the desirable behavior. I once had the opportunity, with another parent friend of mine, to watch our two boys go at it over some, now long forgotten, toy. We were encouraging them to share, and the boys simply didn’t want to share and objected to the competing child’s desire for the coveted item. We took a laissez faire approach and the boys miraculously worked it out. This got us two dads talking about the inherent hypocrisy of what we were asking, as besides borrowing a few tools from one another on occasion, we rarely model the behavior of sharing in our own adult lives. We don’t share the food off our plates, our clothes, cars, or cell phones, so why should we expect our children to want to model behavior that was largely abstract to them. In short, adults are great dictators, but not so good at sharing, and maybe it is unreasonable to expect miracles from our children who just want something for themselves…even if it is just for a brief minute.
Obviously parents (and guardians) try to reinforce, what they view as positive, generous behavior among their developing children, and selfish and possessive behavior is commonly frowned upon by parents, teachers, and adults alike. But are we going to such great lengths to instill virtue that we risk shutting our children out and undermining their own moral and social development?
In an excellent article penned for Slate.com, Michael Erard delves into the difficulty, as well as the inherent hypocrisy, in demanding that children “learn to share.” Erard, through a selection of anecdotes, reveals that children, whether they are willing or unwilling to share, often learn the lesson of sharing, not through adult intervention and pressure, but simply by working it out amongst themselves. “I’m not against sharing as a virtue or an important aspect of social life. But I do think parents should model it before they try to teach it,” Erard maintains. “When they do, they should teach it to those who are cognitively able to grasp the concept, and to those who have a shot at negotiating the terms—and who might be able to share on their own when adults aren’t around.”
Today’s parents tend to be quite anxious about their child’s developing moral center. Combine this with ubiquitous parental anxiety about their child’s level of frustration, satisfaction, and happiness, and you have an almost irresistible desire to intervene when it comes to a tussle over a doll, or a truck, or any matter involving sharing of one’s property. Erard quote Joseph Tobin, an educational anthropologist at Arizona State University, who sites parent’s own unresolved issues from their own childhoods when he says, “”We expect parents to have some appropriate ways of dealing with the inequalities of childhood wealth when the parents can’t talk about this with each other.”
In many respects these child-based conflicts over sharing very startlingly mirror many of the contemporary conflicts going on in this country (on an adult level). How much stuff should one person possess? Is it fair for those with the most stuff to have to share with those who have little or nothing? Should we always be charitable and selfless, or is there any virtue in keeping much of it for yourself? Ask yourself some of these questions and you realize that we, as adults, have a lot more sharing and figuring out to do.
How have you tackled the issue of sharing in your life, and your child’s? Do you feel compulsory sharing should be taught? Is it better to allow children to figure it out for themselves and sometimes fight and struggle in the process? Is it fair to expect more from our children than we do of ourselves?