Most parents want their children to be generous.There’s one very good reason for this: open-hearted giving contributes to both social harmony and personal happiness.
But there’s also one bad reason: too often, parents see a child as their “representative” in the world. So, a greedy, selfish child seems to reveal a dreadful truth about mom and dad, who are either selfish themselves or ineffective as guides. When pressure to share is inspired by the need to be seen as a good parent, a child does not discover the pleasure of giving. What the child learns is, “My doll isn’t really mine. It belongs to Mommy and Daddy. I have to share whether I want to or not.”
Babies do not share. The nine-month old child may, in a playful moment, offer his cookie with an adorable smile—then immediately cry when his brother takes a bite into it. The two-year old may surrender his blue car—if he has his eye on a green one or if he didn’t care much for the blue car to begin with. This is not sharing. This is doing what just comes naturally. Before children can freely lend a toy, they need to be sure it is theirs. So, the wise option with under-four- year-olds is to confirm a child’s property rights before asking him to relinquish them even briefly. Most children discover the joy of playmates and, inevitably, the need for give-and-take in play—they quickly learn, for instance, that sliding is more fun if you have a friend to whoosh with. Pre-schoolers will share a lot of time (but not always) because there is something in it for them. That something may be a fair trade, companionship, or adult praise (“What a good boy you are!”). A child who has been well-loved and guided can respond to how the other kid feels when he or she doesn’t have a bicycle.
If you want to raise a generous child, the DON’T’s are obvious:
• DON’T force a child to share possessions which he feels passionately about. It’s normal for a child to be selfish with some toys and generous with others. Respect this attachment, guard the prized toy, while still teaching him to be generous.
• DON’T lecture about the beauty of sharing and the horribleness of refusing to share.
• DON’T fall for toys that are hyped as aides in teaching your child how to share—there is no special toy to teach generosity!
• DON’T punish a child for refusing to share. If a preschooler becomes involved in a struggle over a toy, it is appropriate to send him to a quiet corner of the room for a while, then talk to him and explain to him why he needs to act more graciously. Allowing him to also observe other children having fun because they know how to share will help get your point across to him. Spanking or permanently confiscating the toy is more likely to incite resentment and further reluctance to share.
But what about the Do’s?
• Exemplify and teach negotiating skills. The simple idea of taking turns when the current user is ready works wonders! The child in possession of the object maintains a feeling of control. One tactic is using a pocket timer (with siblings or on playdates). Children are cued by the ringer. When it rings, they learn that they have to give a toy to their friend, and they can get it back once the timer rings again. “They start learning that giving something away isn’t for always,” says Betsy Mann, an Ottawa-based parent educator.
• Start them young. From the time your child is able to grasp an object, “…you can teach sharing by passing the object back and forth while saying “my turn, your turn. Learning how to take turns is the first step in sharing,” says Mann.
• Help your child to understand how others feel Parents can encourage by explaining to a child about his friend’s behavior and feelings. And remember to use descriptive praise when your child does share. Instead of using general phrases like “You’re such a good boy,” Mann suggests using something more specific such as, “Did you see the smile on Bobby’s face when you gave him the truck? He really liked that.” This draws your child’s attention to more concrete details of what he did.
• Give your child practice in sharing. “The child does not have to feel that sharing means a deprivation of possessions,” says Mann. One good practice is through repeated exchanges, where the child learns something about reciprocity and trust.
• Use “rehearsal behavior” to avert trouble. A child invited to a birthday party, unless coached beforehand, may snatch the celebrant’s present. Remind your child often (way before the party) that when it is a friend’s turn to have a party it’s their turn to receive presents, and that his turn will come on another day.
• Encourage experiences that allow children to help others in need. Parents can involve the whole family in a fund-raising activity; young children can collect unused toys and clothes or can sell something that they could have created themselves. Enjoying both the earning and giving allow children to discover that giving feels good.
• Remember that models inspire. Children believe in goodness and are moved by true stories of heroism (do we wonder why the likes of Ironman, Spiderman, Ninja Turtles, are so popular with kids?). And of course, the example of parents inspires their children.
The ultimate source of generosity is self-esteem. For the individual who feels good about himself or herself, caring for others, sharing and kindness follow naturally. A psychologist once said, “If children are allowed a growing up that enables them to become adults with a strong sense of their own dignity and competence and worth, they will extend these feelings to include other people.”