Do you share your car with others? Your cell phone? Your favorite necklace or pair of jeans? Your engagement ring? That one-of-a-kind heirloom your grandmother passed to you? Do you share your credit card? Your stash of old X-Men comics? How about your partner? Would you willingly share any of those things just because, you know, sharing is a “virtue”?
Perhaps you might. Perhaps some of those things you’d be happy to share with a friend. Or a family member. Or even someone down on their luck. But hardly any of us would be thrilled if we were “forced” to share our most prized possessions. Yet, our culture dictates that children should be required to share, lest they grow up to be selfish and uncaring. If we are to apply our beliefs consistently and place ourselves in our children’s shoes, so to speak, it’s easy to see how being forced to share one of their prized possessions could be just as disconcerting as for an adult placed in a similar position.
We do not require our children to share their toys. If the toy was given to them as a gift or if they bought it with their own money, it is theirs. They alone decide how it is utilized. They own it. It is their property, to share or not share as they see fit. They alone decide how their property gets used. Some exceptions do exist, mainly that they cannot violate another person’s body or that person’s personal property with their property. My son cannot choose to hit his sister with his toy hammer. My daughters cannot decide to leave their dolls lying on the dining room table. My son cannot decide to use his bow and arrow to shoot his sister or the family pooch. As long as they are not violating another’s rights with their property, they retain the right to use it in any way they see fit.
Now, some things in the house are “community property”, such as the television, the couch, the swing set, the floor – things like that. Those items belong to everyone and must be shared. How this sharing is enforced depends on the situation. An important note: community property really means it belongs to mom and dad. So ultimately, if a dispute arises, my wife and I, as owners of the disputed property, have to decide how and under what conditions the property should be allocated.
I’ll give an example. In our house, food is “community property”, meaning my wife and I own it. We bought it. It’s ours. Now, if the children bought some kind of food with their own saved money, it is theirs. They can devour it as quickly as possible, save it for a rainy day, or choose to share it with others. Their call. Their property, their rules. But anything that my wife and I bought belongs to everyone. Want a banana? Get one. An apple? A handful of grapes? Some veggies or cheese from the fridge? Help yourself. But exceptions exist to this, as well. Once in a while, we’ll buy a bag of candy. My wife and I, as owners of the bag of candy, will see to it that it gets distributed fairly; otherwise, one of the larger children would simply devour the entire bag before the smaller ones got any. For special treats like this, we’ll enforce our property rights and not allow one or more of the children to hog the entire bag.
Getting back to children and their possessions: what about when other children are at our house? Anything left out is considered to be share-able. If the kids don’t want to share something with their playmates (for whatever reason), we’ll ask them to “disappear” it before company arrives. We won’t enforce this, of course. We won’t “make” them clean-up before company arrives. But in the event that a child guest in our home finds one of their prized possessions and attempts to play with it, not much sympathy will be given to the child who didn’t put it out of sight before our company arrived.
But isn’t sharing important? Isn’t it a virtue? Yes, sharing is important, which is all the more reason not to force it. People (even children) do not react well to being forced to do something. Okay, you ask: then how will they learn to share?
They learn through life experience that if they won’t share their own things, others are unlikely to share with them. They learn that sharing leads to a more harmonious, enjoyable life for all. They learn that by voluntarily pooling resources, each of them is provided opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist. They learn that cooperating leads to happiness. For instance, my daughters have various dolls and dollhouses. Say the rightful owner of the dollhouse decides not to share with her sister. Her sister then decides not to share some of her dolls. This way, no one has much fun. But if they come to the conclusion on their own that sharing their resources leads to greater opportunities for all, sharing quickly becomes not a chore, but a workable solution.
In the same vein, if Child A has a toy that Child B would like to play with and Child B has a toy that Child A would like to play with, they’re able to make agreements, on their own, that mutually benefit both of them. Child A quickly finds out that being willing to share his toy makes Child B more willing to share hers. In this way they learn to trade. They learn to barter. They learn that trade is made of win.
By forcing them to share, the chance to learn this is taken away. Virtuous behavior cannot be created with aggression. A parent may be able to force them to share for a time, but the end result may well be a child who does not enjoy sharing.
We promote sharing by modeling it ourselves. Unless we have a solid reason for not sharing something, we will make every effort to share with our children. We will even encourage them to share with others because sometimes a little encouragement is helpful. But to force them? No. They have to learn through experience that cooperating benefits everyone. They can see the joy in a friend’s eyes when they willingly share one of their possessions. They learn that doing good makes not only others happy, but makes them happy. They should share because they want to, not because some parental authority dictates they must.