Should we teach our children to share? Or let nature take its course?

A new parenting trend focuses on parents dictating less and leaving children to behave in line with their “natural inclination”. The belief is that the child can eventually figure out they should do the “right” thing for the sake of doing what is right, not because their parents told them to, or offered a reward.

It’s a surprisingly popular idea – and a real shift away from the behaviourism models that suggest children need modelling or direct teaching of correct behaviour and rewards or punishments to shape their development.

If we take a bigger-picture view of parenting, the end goal (hopefully) is to produce a child who can function effectively in society as an adult. And herein has arisen one of the latest questions from these new-age “aparents”: should you teach your child to share? Or, should you go one step further and deliberately teach them not to share?

To share or not to share – that is the question

Before you think this is just another fleeting parenting fad, according to the author of this blog, the “you don’t have to share” approach is being implemented as policy at her child’s preschool.

The main argument put forth is that, in our culture, adults aren’t required to share (their iPhones or sunglasses for example), so why teach such an attitude in our children? On the surface it seems like a fair point – it makes little sense to teach a child to follow a value system that will not be required in their adult years.

A secondary argument is that the law of the jungle (playground) will just as effectively teach children the rules of society without requiring direct parental interference. In other words, let them work it out themselves.

I have some sympathy for this point. I’ve previously documented my concerns about “helicopter” or “bulldozer” parenting and how over-interference from parents may do more harm than good.

Should we leave the kids to figure it out for themselves?
from www.shutterstock.com

However, counter-arguments to both these points are fairly easy to arrive at. While there are certain items we are not expected to share as adults, they tend to be specific and/or situational.

I have, in fact, shared both my phone and my sunglasses when someone had a greater need for them than me (when an urgent call needed to be made and when the driver of the vehicle I was travelling in forgot their sunglasses).

Also many of our social traditions, for example “bringing a plate”, are predicated on the idea of sharing. It’s really not okay for me to arrive at a barbecue empty-handed and proceed to gobble up the food everybody else had provided. So rather than a total no-share policy, which certainly relieves both parents and teachers of getting involved in a lot of fights, perhaps we need to teach children what kind of sharing is socially expected, and when.

Be prepared to accept the ‘jungle’ consequences

As to leaving it to the playground, there has been some very good research looking at what happens when children fail to share. Some interesting sex differences have been noted.

Boys are more likely to ask for the toy, or just take it.
from www.shutterstock.com

For example, the television program Catalyst documented an experiment with preschool boys and girls who were given one valued toy to share between them. The boys tend to be very direct, either asking for or snatching the toy. And I think we all know that, left to run, this could very quickly turn into a slap, hit or punch.

Girls tend to be more passive-aggressive and instead “bully by exclusion”, ignoring the girl with the toy and playing their own game. Eventually the girl with the toy gives it up in order to be included in the group.

Sharing appears to be a human trait rooted in evolution, probably to ensure the best possible chance of survival of a whole group. And research has shown that children who display “prosocial” traits such as sharing demonstrate better outcomes in terms of academic achievement and popularity.

So leaving children to discover the natural consequences of their behaviour is probably a reasonable argument. So long as those same parents who advocate this approach don’t complain if little Johnny comes home with a split lip, or if no-one invites little Sally to their birthday party.

Allowing the law of the jungle to dish up life-lessons is fine, so long as you’re happy to accept the justice that it delivers.

Whether we end up with a society of sharers or non-sharers may well depend on how we have shaped our children’s expectations. I’ll leave to readers to ponder which kind of society they would prefer to live in…

The ConversationRachael Sharman is Lecturer in Psychology at University of the Sunshine Coast.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Rachael Sharman

Dr Rachael Sharman is a lecturer and researcher in psychology, specialising in child/adolescent development. Rachael's research is focused on the optimal and healthy development of the paediatric brain, and has covered the psychological and cognitive impacts of: dietary practices of parents and their children; physical activity; obesity; autism; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; phenylketonuria; depression; concussion; acquired brain injury; childhood trauma. Rachael has a long history in working in child-related fields including child protection, juvenile justice, disability, advocacy and genetic research. A high point was meeting personally with the Queensland Health Minister in 2002 to successfully lobby the government to invest in expanded newborn screening. The result of that meeting ensured that every baby born in Queensland is now screened via the 'heel prick test' for an additional 30 rare genetic disorders. This has prevented the unnecessary death or disability caused by these disorders if left undetected and untreated. Rachael remains committed to research that ensures children have the best possible chance to meet their full potential.

4 thoughts on “Should we teach our children to share? Or let nature take its course?”

    Kathryn Yew says:

    I find this article too black and white. I encourage children to enjoy a proper turn with toys, and in turn let others enjoy a turn too if the toy isn’t a special comfort item. 

    I coach children to use their manners instead of snatching, waiting with resentment or thinking their desires are not important enough to voice or act on – ask nicely, wait for the other person’s response, negotiate and respect each other, then take a turn with grace and trust. I tell the person who is having a turn with the toy to listen to themselves and what they feel, finish their turn and when they put the toy down, give the waiting party the option of playing. This teaches mutual social responsibility, respect and trust.

    I invest a lot of time helping kids to notice and understand each person’s responses, thought processes, emotions. If the kids do not come up with a solution by themselves, I help offer solutions and (impartial) timer systems for fairness – they both choose and agree upon a set time before swap-over. They learn so much critical thinking and self-empowerment from this process.

    I make sure my kids always feel safe and worthwhile, that everyone has the right to feel safe and considered with respect.

    If a child hits another child, I make sure we all ‘pause’. If the child who was hit is unhappy, I draw attention to their ‘serious voice’, ‘serious face’ and emotions. I guide the aggressive child to ask properly. And I encourage the hurt child to value themselves and their desires – whether to continue their turn or to pass over the toy. Both kids are coached in being assertive.

    I act as an advocate and mediator. This is the third option, as opposed to the extremes of being permissive or dictating.

    Hai Nguyen says:

    Our kids are now 12 and 13 and I still try to get them to bed at 7pm, this doesn’t work every night as they have outside activities and sport now but this has always been their bedtime and I hope it stays that way for a while longer. They now go to bed and read for a while but I always maintain “my parenting time is over by that time” and I can get on with other stuff I have to do. I have often had negative feedback but I don’t care, we all know our own kids best.

    Rocio says:

    Too many little kids. It anynos me to see them crap out on small issues of not hard work that they call hard work. It’s good that they have enthusiasm though.

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