The counteraccusation--“LIVVY’S STEALING MY STUFF!”--inevitably follows.
My four-year old twins have had a sense of ownership since they were babies; but now they have much more sophisticated ways to express their feelings about the inanimate objects that surround them. Whereas they used to cut right to the chase, these days, thanks to their parents, Wonder Pets, and the gospel of the preschool social contract, they are able to first spend several minutes hurling indictments at each other before the conversation devolves into screams of “MINE! MINE! MINE!” and mutual whacks on the head.
Children are notoriously bad at taking the long view. This is what makes imparting the concept of sharing so difficult. Here’s how one of my attempts played out, after I broke up a full-contact kickboxing bout:
Livvy: [hysterical] Maddy’s...*sob*...not...sharing!
Me: Well, sweetie, you can’t just go up and take something out of her hands while she’s playing with it. That’s not sharing--that’s just taking whatever you want, without thinking about what the other person wants.
Livvy: But I waaaaaant it!
Me: I know. But so does Maddy. So you have to wait until she’s ready to share. Just think if you had something Maddy wanted. You wouldn’t want her to come up and grab it, would you? If you take something from Maddy without permission, that’s just not fair.
Livvy: It’s fair for me.
When we tell children why sharing is important, we usually emphasize the goodwill that it creates, and the warm feeling you get when you make someone else happy; but it’s the rare preschooler who can relate to these lofty notions. I’ve found some success in resolving conflicts of ownership by lecturing about what the world would be like if no one shared. I’ll go on until the child can’t stand it anymore and drops the toy just to get me to stop talking. Failing that, I resort to the basic elements of parenting preschoolers: bribes and threats.
According to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s classic research regarding the stages of moral development, as we grow up, we have different motivations for “being good.” In the first (“pre-conventional”) level, we simply want to avoid getting in trouble, and take advantage of whatever benefits accrue from doing what we are told. As we mature, our morals are influenced by societal norms and laws (the “conventional” level). Eventually, we can hope to develop our own personal set of principles (the “post-conventional” level), which are more supple than laws and other conventions, and can be thoughtfully applied to complex dilemmas.
But let’s face it: few of us ever get beyond the “what’s-in-it-for-me” pre-conventional stage when it comes to sharing our toys.
Sure, we’ll share a piece of gym equipment with a stranger, and maybe even a table at a restaurant, just so we won’t be perceived as jerks, and only insofar as it doesn’t actually inconvenience us. If someone--even a spouse or loved one--asked for half of your sandwich, though, or the iPad you were watching “Breaking Bad” on, you would be like, “Have you lost your mind?”
I can identify with children’s reluctance to share things they care about; but the problem is that they care too much about stupid stuff. They don’t differentiate between the mundane and the truly valuable. A broken crayon or a specific fork is just as crucial to their happiness as is their most cherished lovey; and the attractiveness of a worthless object multiplies exponentially if anyone else expresses any desire for it. Which they inevitably do, because an object, no matter how useless, shimmers with desirability when another child is holding it. I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only parent of siblings who knows the frustration of having to broker peace over a crumpled magazine subscription form scavenged from the recycling bin.
While preschoolers can be sweet and adorable, they are, at their core, covetous, materialistic, self-serving mercenaries who would throw their siblings under a bus for an 89-cent party favor. When my kids are at school, they (mostly) follow rules and repeat the mantras of good behavior their teachers feed them as part of the socialization process. And for that I am thankful in the extreme. But when it’s just the two of them, they use those words to justify tormenting each other. “I need space!” one of them will shout, while stiff-arming the other. “She’s not listening to my words!” becomes a perfectly valid reason to pinch an arm or throw an awkward punch to the midsection. Likewise, “She’s not sharing” means “I WILL have that broken slinky, if I have to disembowel her first!”
Like the teachers at my kids’ preschool, I preach the abstract foundations for “good behavior,” and hope that they will internalize them, and maybe, unlike many adults, someday come to understand and believe them. But when passions are high, it’s all about sticks and carrots. Well, sticks mostly:
“If you don’t give your sister that--what is that, anyway? A refrigerator magnet with a picture of a mortgage broker on it?--anyway, if you don’t give that back right now, I’m putting your Cinderella’s shoes in time out.”
“That’s not faaaaaiiir...”
“It’s fair for me.”