When my children were quite young, grade school age, I took them to a Burger King playground they enjoyed. My son voluntarily got off the swings to let another boy have a turn. My daughter was respectful to a different child when the child wanted a turn on another playground activity. It was a non-eventful, mildly enjoyable lunch with my children. However, it was remarkable to another parent whose son was benefiting from my children's graciousness. The dad came over and said, "Your children are so respectful and fair. How did you get them to share so comfortably?" My gut response was "I taught them they never had to share." He looked at me puzzled.
In homes across America, you will hear frustrated parents at wits' end, pleading with their children: "Why can't you be a good boy (or girl) and share with your sister!" I heard it from my parents and you probably heard it from yours. Why, as a child, did I resent being told to share? Why did I often think "No! It's mine! I don't want to share it with her. Why should I have to?"
The simple answer is that I was a stubborn, mean, bratty kid. That's the answer that parents want to believe; their child is the problem, not their "reasonable" demand that their child share. But what if the child is not the problem? What if there is something fundamentally wrong with the parent's request? What if parents for centuries have been mistaken about "sharing"? What if this whole issue is not simply a "how to get your kids to be kind in the playground" issue, but one that affects every one of us everyday – whether we are 7 years old or 70? And what if this is an issue that affects your happiness, your child's happiness, your relations with your child and with everyone you meet?
Let's take a closer look at sharing. You work very hard during the year. You hold down two jobs, work overtime and take responsibility for your life. You live within your means. You save for the future. Your paychecks for the first few months of the year go to pay taxes. Your neighbor, who is not ambitious and has less money, has an apartment that she got with your tax money. In the grocery store, she uses your tax money ("food stamps"). In the doctor's office she uses your tax money (government health insurance). When it comes to tax time she relaxes; she doesn't make enough to pay taxes. She never thanks you. You have been told it's important to share with her. You are seen as stingy or selfish if you object. You would go to jail if you refused to pay the taxes that support her. You take it for granted that it is your duty, your moral obligation. You try to silence that voice inside you that says, "But it's not fair. I earned the money she's enjoying.'' You tell yourself what you've heard your whole childhood from your parents: you must share. You try to deaden any feelings of injustice that rise up in you. And you don't think to question the idea of "sharing" and in what ways it feels wrong.
But why not ask those questions? Are kids, or all of us, so corrupt that we need a morality cop to monitor us? Does your parent have the right to play "benevolent dictator" – telling you what you must do to be a "kind" person? Do the politicians have this "right"? When your parents forced you, did you graciously think "Gee thanks mom for forcing me to share my favorite toy with my bratty sister"? Does forced sharing achieve the goal of you respecting your sister or do you end up resenting your parents and sister more? Do you try to hide your favorite toys so that your sister can't arbitrarily lay claim to them by demanding you share? As an adult, do you hire an accountant to minimize the amount of taxes due to the bureaucrats who demand you "share" and who then proceed to use your money to promote themselves as do-gooders? Does forced sharing encourage lying and deceit?
Let's look at another set of questions: If you force your children to share, do your kids learn that since others can muscle in on their toys, it must be "fair" for them to muscle in on the toys of others? Do they learn to use the "sharing" gimmick to force their friends or older brother to "share"? If toys and belongings are community property to be shared, can your younger son use, without permission, your older son's computer? Can your older son "share" your car – taking it for a joyride against your will? Does forced sharing encourage demanding, entitled kids?
Let's look at the forced sharing principle on the romantic level. If you have a loving passionate relationship with your husband, does your sexy neighbor who is struggling to find a similar love of her life have the right to "borrow" your husband for an occasional evening of passion? If this were the case, wouldn't you want to hide from view the fact that your husband is as loving and passionate as he is, even spread false rumors about what a louse he is so that you can keep him to yourself? And, as has happened in too many cases of affairs, the hurt partner sometimes wants to borrow someone else's husband to repair the injustice done to herself, feeling entitled to this. She perpetuates the "sharing" philosophy.
If you still think that there is some good to come out of forced kindness, you've fallen into a trap that will puzzle you for a lifetime, or until you untangle it. And most of us don't know how to untangle it because it seems plausible. Let's look at a children's story to help find an answer. In The Little Red Hen, the mother hen is industrious and responsible. She works hard and invites her chicks and farm yard animals to help her plant the wheat, tend the wheat, harvest the wheat, mill the wheat and mix the wheat to make the bread. All those she asks to help her, refuse. They prefer doing other things or they are too lazy. The Little Red Hen does not use force. She does not mandate that they must help her or go to jail. She leaves them free to make their own decisions. However when the bread is piping hot with a mouth-watering smell, she asks, "Who will help me eat the bread." She gets a unanimous chorus of "me! me!" Then there is that tense moment. How will mother hen respond? Will she take care of these hungry, lazy folk in the name of the good of the family or of the community? Her answer is a resounding "no." She will eat the bread she made, with her effort alone, unapolegetically all by herself. She owns that bread -- not the freeloaders. Her "NO" is one of the healthiest "no's" Mother Hen can give. It is the respect for her own effort, her own industry, her own reward for her effort, i.e., respect for her own mind and life.
The alternative? Mother Hen works and everyone else lazes around and eats what Mother Hen produces. They tell her she is selfish if she doesn't "share". She doesn't want to feel stingy, even though she has an inkling that something is awry here. She becomes her own enemy, forcing herself to act against her own sense of right and wrong and to appease her unworthy neighbors.
Consider another ending: Mother hen refuses to give up her bread but a "caring, kind" politician steps forward and mandates that she "voluntarily" give her bread away to those more needy (e.g., less productive) – a bread tax. How will that affect her motivation to make bread in the future?
What's at stake in these examples? Self-respect—respecting yourself as an individual: your values, your property and your own choice making. Whether it's the parent forcing a child to share his bike, or the government forcing you to share the fruits of your efforts, the pattern is the same. They all want you to act against your own judgement (e.g., you don't want to share your bike with your brother) and they want to take away your values (e.g., your bike, your money).
How do they "accomplish" this? They use methods to make you feel guilty, an undeserved guilt. They may say that your hard work is a gift of God, or of luck, or that your belongings are to be shared with the family. The latest rage in forced benevolence is that children must be taught to share, not only with their family, but with complete strangers – often of the irresponsible variety, such as soup kitchen spongers and drug addicts. I'm referring to the mandatory co"mmunity service movement. Colin Powell would like to see kids go through many hours of the ironically termed Volunteer Service. In the fall of this year, he praised the State of Maryland, which now has 75 hours of mandatory volunteer "community service". This is from a man who, in the same talk, expressed delight that he lived to see the cold war end. He did not like Communistic State Control, but Maryland State Control is fine. When told that mandatory community service is against the 13th amendment, that it violates the rights of the parents and students, he uttered a telling "boo!" How embarrassing to watching a genuinely engaging speaker, who knows that "ideas are more important than an army," who cheers at the demise of the Soviet Union, say "boo!" to individual rights - and then spearhead a "crusade" for mandatory community service.
The puzzle remains: How did my children turn out benevolent, self-responsible individuals without the "benefit" of forced sharing or community service? I did many things to preserve their sense of self-worth, protect them from unearned guilt and encourage them to be just. For example, when my children were expecting company, I told them they had a problem to solve. They could leave all their toys out, but if they didn't want little Joey or Sara to play with their new Tonka truck or Barbie doll, it would cause problems to leave them in clear sight of the their enthusiastic young friends. It would be teasing them in a bad sense. But they could put these toys away and leave out only toys they wanted to enjoy with their friends, which they did. Forced sharing was not needed and would have backfired. I stated the problem to my children openly and suggested a solution that was respectful of their property and their choices.
When we visited Joey's or Sara's home, we came loaded with toys my kids wanted to let their friends play with. My children choose the toys to put in a colorful net bag. When we got to Joey's or Sara's home, Joey and Sara treated us like Santa with a sack full of novel toys. They were very generous with their own toys. My kids, along with Joey and Sara were learning a concept infinitely more valuable than forced sharing; they were learning the value of a healthy unforced exchange. Joey chose to trade his toys with my son, Sara chose to trade with my daughter. They did this eagerly, without any adult intervention. From years of showing my children the value of mutual fairness, of unforced trading (not forced sharing) across many situations and in many creative ways, they did not come to experience others as potential threats to their property or choice. They learned that others are a potential benefit to their own happiness. They learned that no one has a right to their productive effort or to their belongings. They also learned that they don't have a right to other's productive effort – they can't demand that others give up their toys, or husbands. Even though my now grown children pay taxes, they understand the principle behind the Boston Tea Party. To force kindness is to assume that it is not in human nature and that you have to beat it into people. To force kindness is to destroy it.
Let's return to the playground. Why do I think forced sharing is so disastrous? Because I want my children to value their own lives and their own minds, to learn the proper principles of self-respect and to genuinely value others. How will they learn this by my forcing them to share the swing with a little boy on the playground? If I were to say "Get off that swing now and let this little boy have a turn. Don't be selfish!" my daughter would probably be thinking under her breath "I hate this boy who's forcing me to give up my fun. I hate my mother when she makes me feel like I'm a bad kid." Forced kindness breeds resentment of others.
How did my children turn out to be truly generous? It comes, not from feeling that they owe the other child time on the swing, or that they are good if they sacrifice for others. Rather it comes from an exquisite fairness principle, the type that Mother Hen grasped. If the chicks had helped mother hen, they would have enjoyed the piping hot bread. My children have never been coerced into sharing and thus don't see people as a threat; they view people, strangers as potentially benefits to their own happiness.