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The Foolproof Way To Teach Your Kids To Share

From now on, when I feel the urge to dictate that my kids behave generously, I'm going to turn the mirror around for a few seconds and ask myself, "What can I do, in this very moment, to display generosity?"
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Christians believe, "Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously." (2 Corinthians 9:6)

Buddhists believe, "Generosity is the virtue that produces peace." (The Sutra of the Recollection of the Noble Three Jewels).

Muslims believe, "Do not turn away a poor man...even if all you can give is half a date." (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1376).

Jews believe: "Tzedakah (charity) was slumbering, and Abraham aroused it. How did he do it? He built an inn with openings in every direction, and he would receive wayfarers." (Shocher Tov 110).

It's safe to say that most people in the world, most religions in the world, place a great deal of importance on cultivating generosity.

As a mother of two, I've spent hours debating and implementing strategies to teach my children to share. I've struggled with how to raise generous kids within a culture that overvalues competition and self-interest. How can I, just one person, deeply ingrain the message into my child's psyche that giving is good? How can we, collectively, "trump" the tidal wave of greed and hate with real lessons on the unseen benefits of sharing?

Well, I've realized that there is one reliable way, but it's not the easy way...

When my daughter snatches a toy from another child's hand or refuses to give her "best friend" a turn on the slide, the embarrassment I feel is visceral. "We've talked about this over and over" I whine, "you need to learn to share with your friends or you won't have any friends!" I watch her little eyes glaze over, unsure if my words register or if she can only feel the weight of my shame, the confusion caused by millions of mixed messages.

Driving home that day, still wondering how my sweet little girl could behave so stingily, worried about what the other mothers think of my parenting skills, I cut someone off in traffic and zip down a wrong-way to snag the closest parking spot to the grocery store...all while my daughter keenly watches. She listens silently from the back seat when I call her father to talk about money and how we need more of it. She notices exactly how I prioritize my time and my cash. At just five years old, she's watching my every push and prod to get ahead, to save more, to win...actions I'm barely conscious of, actions I often take pride in at the end of the day.

I'm not sure exactly when we stop formally teaching kids to share, because mine are still little, but I know that at some point in my life the overall messages went from encouraging generosity and empathy, to ensuring that rivalry and winning were the most important focus. Our televisions became jam-packed with competition reality shows where there can only be one winner, the rest labeled losers and disregarded (even if they are also really good chefs or fashion designers!). It's so ubiquitous that by the time we're adults, most of us have become obsessed with winning-as-a-path-to-happiness, no matter how many people we have to step on to get there. When operating from such a place, it feels completely alien to give things away, to see the value in generosity.

When did those crucial preschool-lessons stop being relevant? Where is the Kindergarten-vision that there is enough to go around, that in helping our fellow man we are helping ourselves in the long run? We know that on a macro level there is enough food and clean water to feed and hydrate all of mankind, yet children die of starvation and dehydration every few seconds, because we've forgotten how to share. We've forgotten to take a little less so that others can have a little too and we've gotten used to profiting off the suffering of fact, we revel in it.

I'm having trouble explaining that to my children.

The current refugee crisis has brought out the ugly side of humanity, leading Pope Francis to publicly remind us all about The Golden Rule when it comes to treating each other well. So how do we, as parents, pierce through the dominant greed-culture to revalue the act of giving? It's actually quite simple.

Telling a child to share while behaving selfishly is a lot like telling a child not to smoke while lighting up, at some point they simply won't trust your words when your actions turn a different phrase. Only we have the power to directly model for our kids what it looks and feels like to be generous and, unfortunately, what it looks and feels like to be greedy.

As usual, it starts with me.

From the moment I was pregnant, my life stopped being completely about me and, to be honest, it was painful as hell. I had to share my body, my nutrition, my time, my money, my sleep and almost every last shred of personal work and self-care I depended on...and that was just with my own kids! Sharing with friends and family, not to mention complete strangers, became even harder. Some days I was so tired of sharing, I wanted to do much more than throw a tantrum or snatch a toy.

The experience of motherhood helped me realize that, even in my late 30's, I had a hard time sharing! And that is where I find empathy for what my five year old is unable to calmly express, that same place of discomfort within me that feels tight when faced with giving something away. I have got to be brave enough to confront that discomfort daily and to teach my little ones to do the same.

For the low price of a dollar placed into an outstretched hand, I can offer the lesson of charity. I can show my daughter how to be a generous friend, not by yelling at her, but by openly giving to my own friends. I can practice giving away my excess stuff in a way that encourages my kids to do the same. I can volunteer my money and my time to causes I believe in, all while including them in the fun! Because it actually does feel good to give, to see the smile you can create with even a simple gesture of kindness.

So there it is folks, plain and simple, my "foolproof" way to teach your kids to share.

If you want to raise generous children, you must openly practice generosity.

The good news is that it's rather easy to demonstrate giving with our day-to-day choices. Many of us have had the opportunity to re-learn how to share through the process of becoming parents and if we are willing to share everything with our kids, extending that outward to our direct communities and then to the world is not such a big leap...and it's one our children desperately need us to make! They need to trust, from watching how we choose to live our lives, that there is benefit to generosity.

From now on, when I feel the urge to dictate that my kids behave generously, I'm going to turn the mirror around for a few seconds and ask myself, "What can I do, in this very moment, to display generosity?" And when my daughter screams in agony at the thought of having to go second down the slide, I will feel her cries echo my own selfish desires to be first in line at the bank and snag the opportunity to remind both of us that it can feel just as good to let others go ahead, to let our friends win...that there actually is enough to go around.

As we mire in the growing rhetoric of "us vs. them", I hold a quiet thank you to my children for reminding me how to share, painful as it was, so that I may, in turn, teach them how good it feels to give back.

Parent in training,

Kiri Westby
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