557. Learning to Share

We teachers and parents do our best to get children to know how to share. Sharing is generally considered a good thing to do. According to Piaget, children start out egocentric. Piaget didn’t make a value judgment about that; he didn’t describe that egocentrism as a form of original sin. But he did observe children pretty closely, and saw them struggling, at first, to meet their own needs. Not looking around to see if anybody else needed anything.
I sometimes think that that egocentrism stays with us throughout life – that our needs may change, and we may get more skilled at meeting some of our needs by ourselves, but that we still spend a lot of time and energy working on our own stuff. What we need may be self-respect, approval from others, companionship, and/or love. As we try to get those needs met, we may look much nicer than someone who’s trying to get food. A person who is working hard to make friends usually isn’t seen as greedy; no one criticizes this person, saying, “You have enough friends, already. Leave the rest for lonely people who don’t have any.”
Once we decide that we want children to learn to share, we’ve got quite a challenge. If a child behaves greedily, what are we supposed to do? Confiscate what the child isn’t sharing? Punish in some other way? I don’t think so. What a child can learn from that kind of lesson is to only be greedy in private – to be sneaky about it. From what I’ve seen of adult behavior (including my own), that’s a lesson many of us have learned. We share what people see us with, but if we find or buy things when no one else is around, we don’t consistently say to ourselves, “I’ve got to find someone to share this with.” Sometimes we savor it secretly, and then put it where no one else will see it.
But we can model sharing for children. Most of us do some of that. But as we do, we’re apt to look and sound as if we’re trying to teach them to share, and maybe they don’t seem to be learning it. Maybe they’re perfectly happy to have a piece of our treat, but not at all interested in reciprocating. Or maybe they share when we’re looking, but hoard in private, happy to get both praise and booty – the best of both worlds.
The modeling has to be real. It can’t be an act we do just to teach our children. I remember the look on my daughters’ faces when they discovered that my wife and I sometimes had ice cream sundaes when we thought they were asleep. They learned something about sharing that night – that their role models didn’t always share – that sometimes they secretly kept things for themselves.
I’m not saying we should share everything. But I’m saying we should try to be honest role models. Not that we should necessarily say, “Good night. We’re going to have ice cream sundaes when you’re asleep.” But maybe we ought to admit to them that we don’t ALWAYS share. And they’ll learn that they don’t have to ALWAYS share, either. But sometimes it’s a nice thing to do.

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