“When you are three, everything is a brand-new Ferrari.”
This was my explanation to a group of parents of preschool-aged children at a recent workshop about sharing, and how to effectively teach this concept to young children. I had asked each parent to come with an example of either a time when they felt sharing worked effectively, or an example of a time when it was a total disaster.
One dad in particular, John, shared how he had been extremely upset and embarrassed over an episode at his daughter’s recent third birthday party. His daughter had opened all of her gifts and was especially excited over her new toy called “Shopkins.” When she was then told to share them with her fellow party-goers who were equally excited about said Shopkins, a full-on, hysterical, screaming, crying, peel-the-pain-off-the-walls-wailing meltdown ensued.
Sharing is a hot-button topic for parents because it is presumed to be an indicator of a child’s successful social and emotional development. It is also falsely presumed to be the same as teaching a child to be generous. Parents worry that if their children do not share well or take turns, then they will not have any friends, or will not turn out to be good people. Naturally, no parent ever wants to see those things happen. Sharing and taking turns are important skills; however, adults often expect them of children far earlier than is age appropriate. Many parents will insist that their children share their belongings with other children. What does this really teach them?
I asked John to step back for a moment from the emotion he was feeling over being embarrassed in front of the other parents at his daughter’s party and to tell me exactly what his daughter had said right before the meltdown. He thought for a minute and then answered, “But I just GOT it, daddy!”
Great. Next I asked John to try to think of some object that he would personally really, really love to have. He thought for a moment and answered, “A Ferrari.”
“Perfect, John. So how would you feel if I handed you the keys to drive a brand new Ferrari right now?”
“And then how would you feel if five minutes later I told you that you now have to hand the keys to the person sitting next to you, and if you refuse, you are being naughty and selfish?”
Exactly. Little children are experiencing the world for the first time and everything to them is as new and exciting as a new Ferrari. A reluctant sharer may just be really excited to play with her cool new toy, and forcing her to turn around and immediately give it away before she is finished enjoying it can send the message that her needs are not as important as her friend’s. Forcing a child to share is absolutley not the same as teaching generosity. Generosity can only be taught by example and eventually the desire must come from within. Dr. Montessori believed that by insisting a child share is taking away from him an opportunity to give from the heart.
Recently, I had the wonderful and totally unexpected opportunity to see first-hand that when you restrain yourself and trust children, they will resolve these kinds of issues on their own. Every Thursday morning while walking my godson to school, we look for pennies on the ground. On our walks we also regularly pass a local panhandler in the Fulton St. subway station. Every Thursday for the past six months Kai has asked me, “Bri-ee, what that man doing?” and each time I explained that he was asking for money.
Finally, last Thursday as we were walking up the stairs, Kai stopped me, saying “No, gotta go back Bri-ee.” He fished around in his pocket for one of the pennies that we had recently found in a snow drift. He then turned around and went back to drop it in the man’s cup. There was absolutely no explanation for Kai’s decision on that particular morning. No one told him to do it. We had passed the same man many times and he had never before shown an interest in giving him anything, but for some reason last Thursday, Kai wanted to share one of the pennies that we had found. I thought maybe it was because he had finally worked through the whole pan-handling notion in his little brain, or maybe it was because he had seen me or others do it.
When I asked him why he chose to give the man one of his pennies he simply said, “Because I want to.”
I should have let Kai lead the workshop.