Teaching kids to share is good for them and good for society

by Kelly Meldrum

On a gorgeous fall day, I drove down the streets of our upper middle class, suburban neighborhood, waving at strangers raking leaves and kids playing in the unseasonably warm weather. As I passed garage after garage, open and neatly organized, I noticed something that disgusted me about the culture in which we live.

I saw the exact same items in nearly every garage: expensive lawn mowers, high-end snow blowers, ladders of every size, hardware of all kinds, and every lawn gadget thing-a-ma-bob imaginable. The two to three vehicles parked in every driveway didn’t escape my attention either.

The homes in our neighborhood are around 50 feet from one another. In this moment of clarity, it seemed like such a waste that every garage contained multiple, seldom used items hanging literally feet away from the neighbor’s identical items.

I thought about why we live this way. I believe that our need for autonomy, financial or otherwise, is rooted in the fact that, as a society, we’ve lost our sense of community and connection to one another. We don’t have relationships with our neighbors. We don’t share because we’re looking out for ourselves.

My experience cemented my conviction and commitment to sharing the things we own and teaching my children to do the same.

Spend less, give more

My desire for community and connection with others is deeply rooted in my faith as a Christ-follower, but it doesn’t require religious tradition to see the benefits of sharing. My cousin, an atheist, is kind and deeply empathetic to those in need. She sees the value of connection and community through sharing as much as I do. She loves others through her actions more often than many “Christians” I know.

The more we share what we have, the less we spend on ourselves, which allows us to give more to others, including family, friends, charities, and causes that are important to us. We remind our kids of this often, especially, when they both want the exact same thing. We ask them if they can share it, or if they really think they each need one.

We don’t demand sharing of every single thing we own (for instance, each child has their own iPad), but we do highly encourage it and talk through the possible outcomes of sharing or not.

Connection

When we share, we connect with others on a deeper level. There is no way to share without communicating and cooperating with someone else. The act alone is good for children’s social and emotional development. We can cultivate empathy as we talk through how it feels to be without something that we need or want. Likewise, children practice patience as they learn to wait for something that they want, including time or attention.

My children are not saints, and I am an average parent who “loses it” daily, but I believe our focus on sharing from infancy has positively affected our children and resulted in less fighting and sibling rivalry. Our two youngest share as if they are twins (they’re not).

Speaking of twins, they’re an excellent example of children who’ve learned to share from a young age. Twins typically share everything from toys to time to parents and rooms, yet they often have an unbreakable bond, likely hardened by years of taking turns and cooperation.

Community

One only need turn on the news to see the obvious break down of community in our society. In poorer nations all over the world today, life is all about community. People have to share to survive.

It used to be that way in First World nations as well, but time, money, stress, and, distance have separated us from one another literally and figuratively. Our elders cry, “I remember when neighbors really cared about each other,” and we all nod our heads in agreement.

Most of us concur that something is broken in our communities, but no one knows how to fix it. I believe that sharing can bring back some of that unity we’re lacking. We’ve started by letting our family, friends, neighbors, and church know that we have things they can borrow. Not surprisingly, most are taken aback that we would trust them with our possessions.

Regardless of how they feel, those who need something will take us up on the offer. In turn, they offer time to help with a chore or lend out something of theirs that we might need. It’s not tit-for-tat; it’s the beginning of community and real connection between acquaintances.

The Earth

It’s a no-brainer that the less we buy and use, the better it is for the environment. What if only every other house, or every third house on our block had a heavy-duty snow-blower? What if more people car-pooled to work or part-time workers shared a vehicle?

Even smaller gestures could have an impact. We could tell our neighbors that we have a 24-foot ladder they can borrow anytime so they don’t feel the need to buy one when they need to put up and take down Christmas lights once a year.

Boundaries and pitfalls

It probably seems easy for me to say “everybody share” when it’s clear that I am well-off. I wasn’t always. I grew up in a working poor family. We had everything we needed, but debt and living paycheck-to-paycheck was the norm. My parents worked hard, but still had to borrow money for Christmas, medical care, and unforeseen circumstances. I know the other side, and I can’t help but think of how we would have benefited if someone in our lives had said, “Hey, I have a few things you can borrow so you don’t have to buy them.”

My parents were protective of all of their things because they worked so hard for them. But even my parents, who didn’t have a lot, had items they could have shared with the neighbors. My dad worked in construction, so he had dozens of tools not in use. My mom made gorgeous handmade Halloween costumes every year for us (which she did lend out when we were older).

I understand the inherent desire to protect things that are special, so we do allow our kids a few special items that they don’t have to share. When sharing anything, it’s important to talk about what will happen or who is responsible for the item if does break. Will the owner pay for it if the borrower didn’t use it out of turn? Will they split the expense? It’s a good conversation to have upfront, and it fosters that connection we all need.

Modeling behavior

In our home, we model the behavior we want to see in our children. We give out our garage code to friends and family if they want to stop by to use the bathroom or get something to eat when we aren’t home.

When guests come over, we make it clear they’re welcome to anything in the common areas, from food and drinks to toys, movies, books, and magazines. We lend out our folding tables, hardware, carpet cleaner, leaf blower, ladders, chairs, lawn games, and virtually anything that we don’t often use that can be easily transported.

Our kids get one day with their new toys. Yep, just one day that they don’t have to share, and then it becomes family property and anyone can play with it.

I know that it’s not for everyone, but sharing is a way of life for us. Surprisingly, it works. And it’s made us a more joyful, more giving, and more loving family.

debate club

I didn’t make my kids share and they became generous people

by Kimberly Yavorski

Parents have become too involved in their kids’ decisions. As a society, we seem to have bought into the idea that we’re judged on the actions of our children and, as a result, impose demands of perfection on them. We try to force them to behave in ways that are unnatural and, despite claiming to hate the idea, expect them to “Do as I say, not as I do.” Sharing is just one example.

While I certainly think there’s value in sharing, I don’t believe that kids should be taught to share everything. After all, as adults, we get to choose which things we share and which we keep to ourselves. It seems hypocritical to me to insist that a child share everything, then have a “look but not touch” attitude about certain items (i.e. keep all the salted caramel ice cream to myself).  Instead, I think we should start teaching them to decide if and when to share their things from a young age.

I believe in natural consequences. There should be a logical cause and effect. I think this is how people learn best. (I have to confess that I may have, on occasion, manipulated circumstances to make a point.) There’s inherent value in sharing; being selfish and greedy is unlikely to improve relationships with others and can be very isolating.

But I think this is a lesson best learned by experience, not by being forced. I gave my children the option to share, or not. If that resulted in siblings or friends choosing to reflect their selfish ways, I then pointed out that everyone can choose whether to share or not, and that maybe sharing with others would make them more likely to share with you.

When my daughter was small, like many others, she had a special stuffed toy that was extremely important to her and went everywhere with us. On one occasion, when we had another child visiting, he wanted to play with this toy. My daughter refused, and as the situation escalated, his mother admonished my daughter, telling her to share.

I quickly stepped in, saying no, she didn’t have to share that toy as it was very special to her. I told my daughter that since she didn’t want to share this toy, I would put it someplace safe for her and followed through. The other mom was surprised at my reaction, but it was my house, my rules, and she accepted my solution to the issue.

I kept to this philosophy as my children grew. With four kids in the house, there were many times one child wanted a toy that another had. We discussed sharing, and I pointed out how some toys are much more fun to play with when shared. Sometimes sharing and working together on something like a jigsaw puzzle made the process go faster as well.

I insisted on manners and taught the older kids to use a “bait and switch” technique when their baby or toddler siblings had an item they didn’t want to share. I explained that it was not acceptable to grab toys away, but that they should find another toy with equal or greater appeal and trade. Anything they were unwilling to share was to be put away before friends came over to play.

I believe that not forcing my kids to share has enabled them to be more assertive. They have the confidence to say no and to stand up to being treated unfairly (and also defend others who are less able to do so than themselves). They also accept no as an answer. They understand that sometimes a “no” is “not now,” and other times it is firm and final. That being said, they’re all generous individuals who frequently do share – on their own terms.

I question what we’re teaching the child who wants an item by forcing another to share. Does this somehow enable them and teach them that they can have whatever they want simply by demanding it, that it is their right to have everything shared with them?

Allowing kids to sometimes not share teaches the one suffering the rejection that they will not always get what they want, that wanting a thing does not necessarily mean you get it. Asking to play with a toy is a request. If the other child is forced to give it up, it becomes akin to a demand. Forcing kids to share can also cause resentment. If they’re going to share, I want my children to share willingly.

Some parents enforce sharing rules by insisting that children take turns (even when it is not their child or even their child’s toy). Assuming that such sharing equates to fairness, and that for some reason we should falsely imply that life is fair, is this really the message conveyed? If you have something and are not done using (or playing with) it, and are forced to give it to someone, how is that okay?

Instead, if we ask a child to wait until the other is done with the item, we teach patience and waiting (a skill that will be used throughout life). If we choose to say no altogether, it may seem harsh, but is more a life lesson than dictated sharing.

I have another, more practical reason not to insist on sharing. Not everyone places the same value on things. There are items that are important to me that others consider insignificant. In addition, not everyone is taught to respect the property of others. While I’m careful to take great care with things that do not belong to me (and have taught my children to do the same), others have not always reciprocated. Sometimes sharing results in the item in question being damaged, lost, or even destroyed.

I’ve had the opportunity to observe many children, of varying ages and abilities, engage in play. Some of these cherish playthings and treat them lovingly. Others seem to have a crush-and-destroy attitude towards everything in their path. Sharing involves an implied trust and sometimes that trust needs to be earned. Though some people are quick to offer a replacement, others simply move on to another toy. And in some cases, the item can’t be replaced.

Many people I know share freely, without giving it a second thought. They’re quick to loan any item, without caution or condition. Some may see my perspective as selfish or consider it a character flaw, but I’m more discerning in what I share and with whom. Prized possessions deserve careful treatment and don’t have to be shared.

When my kids ask to borrow things and I hesitate, they’re quick to tell me it’s okay if I don’t want to share, that they understand. They can say no to my requests as well; they know I will offer them the same consideration.

It’s okay to have some things for yourself. As adults, we respect personal ownership. We don’t walk into someone’s house and use anything we see that we like. In fact, we usually even ask permission to use a bathroom (as if that would be denied). Why should our kids be taught that their possessions are less important than ours?