How Do Children Learn About Sharing? Being obligated to share teaches obedience, not generousity

How Do Children Learn About Sharing? Being obligated to share teaches obedience, not generousity

Imagine you were reading the complimentary paper at Starbucks and out of nowhere, someone comes up and swipes it off your table and says “my turn.” When you look up at the Starbucks employee with a stunned look, she says “at Starbucks we encourage sharing.”

Now in this situation, who would be the rude person? The person swiping the paper, of course, and who would be the unreasonable person? The Starbucks employee who is talking to you like you’re the one in the wrong. Not the person who didn’t want to “share” their paper. Why is it ok to do this to children? We say we are teaching them to share but sharing that is motivated by anything other than kindness creates a power imbalance.

Now knowing how this Starbucks is, you bring your own book this time, assuming if it is yours, surely you won’t be forced to share. Wrong! Anyone can take your book at any time, or anything of yours, for that matter, in this Starbucks. Would you go back? NO!!

Imagine though that you were stranded there five days a week, for 10 hours a day. How would you feel? You may become fiercely protective of all things “yours.” Some people say children are selfish and possessive over material items. Maybe we could try not taking their things and giving them to other children? Maybe they wouldn’t feel as much need to protect their possessions if they did not constantly fear the loss of them? Childhood seems to come with this obligation to share everything when, in fact, sharing should be intrinsically motivated by the feeling you get when you choose to be generous to someone else. Sharing your toy, because someone told you to, is not being nice, it’s being obedient.

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My almost 5 year old was raised never being told to share (but seeing it modelled everywhere). He went to a school with the same philosophy. We have never pushed it and we have not needed to. My son shares with everyone, knows the word and uses it correctly (unlike some adults). I’ve seen a child take his toy and then drop it and then he picks it up and hands it back to them. He does not seem to feel a sense of possession over material items. I believe because we have built a foundation of trust in this area, he does not feel obliged to share his things with others, releasing him from the fear of losing his possessions without merit or reason.

Some people will say “we need to teach children to share.” That is not giving children the credit they deserve. We are not believing in their ability to learn about sharing through observation and interactions with others. Rather some people are forcing it, which is counterproductive to learning about anything, including sharing. A recent study demonstrated that children were happy to share, when the act was of their own free-will, demonstrating prosocial behaviours; the foundation to generosity and kindness. However, when the children were obligated to share, this did not make them happy and although most complied with the obligation, the joy that comes from being generous was the sacrifice of compliance. It feels good to do something for someone else, but not when you are being obligated to do so. Obligation strips the child of the opportunity to feel pride, when their act of kindness makes another person happy. That pivotal moment, where a child feels that rush of altruism, that is the moment where sharing is learned.

The study was conducted with three-year-olds and five-year-olds. The five-year-olds shared more when they were obligated, and less frequently when they were not. The three-year-olds however, shared equally when they were obligated, versus when they shared autonomously. This indicates that the “skill” of sharing without obligation was less prominent in children who assumably had two more years of “learning to share.” The older children had learned obedience in lieu of generosity. Perhaps the older children could learn something from the younger children about prosocial behaviour and sharing?

People may say “well you can’t just let the other children not have a turn.” If a child asks to use something communal, than in a classroom setting, I would make sure that child had the next turn but would almost NEVER shorten the original users turn because another child wanted it. Would you hand over the paper while you were engrossed in an article? The only exception to this in a classroom is if we bring in something that is a big novelty. Then we discuss turns and how this time everyone will get five minutes on the trampoline, or whatever works for that item. You would only do this on occasion, as you are basically setting yourself, and the children, up for a difficult day. One of the principles of early childhood education is to have enough materials for everyone because it is unreasonable to expect children under four to share.

I have seen that when there are enough materials, children share freely. This is logical because in order to survive as a species, we needed to hoard our possessions. It is part of being in an evolved and privileged society that we have the luxury of sharing. For that reason it is important for children to learn how to share, as it is the foundation of altruism. Sometimes people do not see children as competent and capable of learning things without receiving direct instruction. Changing your perspective may alter how you treat your child. If ever you think you may be guilty of childism, ask yourself, “is this how I would handle this with a friend, my partner, a sibling?” Often that can help shift your mind into seeing what your child needs, rather than what you need (to not look like the “bad parent” who doesn’t make their child share their toys).

Some people will say “I don’t want to raise a child who only thinks about their own needs.” Small children can ONLY think about their own needs. It’s called being egocentric and it is an important part of development and survival. It’s the same as asking a newborn to walk. It is not within their zone of proximal development (ZPD). I think we need to see children as capable and competent, able to learn social rules, if we model them. Forcing them to act a certain way, I feel, can be counterproductive, in many ways. As the adult in the situation, it builds a foundation of trust with children when we stick up for them and not force compliance. You will find they often end up making “the right choice” anyways.

Some people will say “we share roads, community centres, parks.” Children share these things too. They are there with us, sharing the same spaces, witnessing sharing first hand. You do need to share the road, but not your car. Very few people would see someone at a bus stop and think “gee, maybe I should let them use my car” or if you were walking with your stroller and you saw another mom trying to wrangle her crew without a stroller, would you stop and offer her your stroller? If you would, great!! If you want children who do things like that, then they need to see you doing them. What do you think would have more impact; encouraging your child to share their dollies stroller or sharing yours with someone in need?

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