The only way to teach sharing is by example

September 2, 2015

Laura was a precocious little girl. She was one of the oldest and tallest in her nursery class. She was generally quite helpful to the younger ones, but one day she decided to teach Josh a lesson.

The teachers had presented a short lesson on sharing. Even though the attention span of a two-year-old is about four and a half seconds, they managed to tell a story and explain how sharing can help us be happy.

Then the teachers gave each child a picture to color and one crayon to use. They encouraged the children to trade or share crayons. All went as well as could be expected with children that young, so the teachers were hoping that this small tidbit would be internalized.

They needn’t have worried. Laura seemed to fully understand the concept. The only thing she hadn’t figured out was how it was supposed to work.

When it was play time, Josh ran for the little riding toy and climbed on, but Laura was right behind him. She shoved him off, causing him to sprawl on the floor, then climbed on the toy and rode away.

While Josh howled his protest, the teachers asked her why she had done that. She innocently looked up at them and explained, “I am teaching him how to share!”

Perhaps their lesson didn’t go as well as they thought.

Sharing is a difficult concept to teach young children. Too often, everyone is so concerned about themselves and what they want, they are not paying attention to the fact that people around them have needs and wants, too.

In Laura’s mind, if she wanted something, Josh was supposed to let her have it immediately. She didn’t realize that, since Josh wanted the toy, too, she could have shared it with him simply by waiting her turn.

The nursery lesson was a good start, but Laura will need a few more years to understand and act on it. Many adults still have problems with sharing.

I heard an older lady once tell a friend of hers that whenever her adult daughters came to visit, they would say, “Ok, Mom, where is your stash?”

They knew her chocolate was there and that it was safely hidden away, because if it were left in the open, it would have to be shared and their mother was not about to share any of her precious loot.

It was actually a source of amusement in their family. And of course, since her daughters were in on the secret, her stash was shared. Or perhaps an alternate stash was shared and her real one was still held back. They might never know.

Sharing cannot be learned by itself. The concept does not stand alone. Other lessons must be taught along with it, including kindness, empathy, selflessness, tolerance, and patience. An impatient child will have a difficult time learning how to share, and a child that doesn’t learn how to share will not learn patience.

Is it possible to help children learn how to share? Yes, but not by words alone. Only those who are willing to model the concept are able to teach it effectively.

Be sure that sharing is a standard practice in your own life. And when you do it, call it “sharing” to the young person who might be watching. Explain what you are doing and why. Let the child know that sharing is something you are happy to do. Furthermore, tell him that it’s generally an easy way to help others.

Then make sure the child has a chance to practice what he has learned. Give him two cookies and have someone else ask for one of them. Hopefully, the child will hand over one, at which time smiles, praise, and thanks can be heaped upon him.

Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. We tried it with M&Ms with one of our girls. When a child has a fistful of candy, she might be willing to part with one piece, but not this little girl. She loved M&Ms and rarely was given any. So when she had some, we would have fun with it. We would hold out our hand and ask for one. She would take her little fist and put it back behind her head. I suppose our family was a bit guilty of pestering her, but it was fun to watch. She was so protective of her treasure.

We didn’t insist, either. If we had made her give us one of her candies, then it wasn’t sharing anymore. It was simply us taking something from her. Sharing is voluntary. If a parent has to insist that a child share, it negates the lesson and is a great way to help your child learn how to do what Laura did—take from others.

Instead, teach children to give some of what they have. Teach them to have compassion for others and want to help them. Teach them that sharing is one way to serve others and help both parties be happy.

In fact, you might not need to teach them specifically to share. Instead, focus on kindness towards others. Help them learn to be aware of other people’s needs and wants. Give them opportunities to practice. Whether it is sharing cookies, time, space on a bench, or a smile, sharing shows concern for others.

Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of six, and has served as a foster parent. She has a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.

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