Our neighbor’s daughter has nine children. They’re all home schooled, get a healthy dose of religion, and live on a shoestring. The result has been that they play well with each other, they take care of each other, and they share. They don’t have that many toys, so they’ve learned to take turns. They seem to lack that sticky substance kids apply to all their possessions that make it difficult for them to hand them over to someone else.
When they came to visit a week ago, my four-year old son, Eddie, heard the chirping of children and wanted to play with them. As an only child, my son’s ears are attuned to the sound of children the way a thirsty person might perk up when they hear the sound of a running tap. I walked Eddie over to my neighbor’s house, and he played with my neighbor’s grandchildren all afternoon. When he came home, my son talked about the children endlessly until he went to bed, and he looked forward to waking up so he could play with them again.
The next day, the youngest three children came to our house to play in the sandbox in our side yard. One of their older siblings came along, as a babysitter. I disappeared into the house to take care of something, and when I emerged, Patrick, the youngest child, said, “Can I go in the house and get Big Hero Six?” He’d been in our house briefly and spotted Eddie’s newest toy, the marshmallow-like robot from the movie that bears his name.
“Okay,” I said.
I suddenly saw my son get up and walk down the street toward a neighbor’s tree and then hide behind it, with his back to the tree so no one could see his face. But from the side of him, I could see his cheek turning red and quivering. He was crying, silently. It pained me. I walked over.
“Buddy, buddy, buddy,” I said, rubbing his arm. “Why are you crying?”
“I don’t want him to have Big Hero Six. That’s my favorite toy,” he said.
“He’s not going to keep it,” I said. “He just wants to play with it.”
“But it’s my favorite,” he said, still weeping silently, almost cathartically. He seemed utterly vexed. He loved his new friends and desperately wanted their love and approval, but he did not want to relinquish his new toy.
“I know how hard it is to share,” I said. “It’s really hard. And they have all these sisters and brothers, and they’re used to sharing. You’re not.”
I could see from his response that emphathy wasn’t working, so I tried reasoning.
“You know the benefit of sharing is that you get to have a toy you don’t usually have,” I said. The only example I could think of was a recent visit he had to the house of a friend, who was also an only child.
“Remember when you were at John’s house, and he had the Bumble Bee transformer, and you really wanted it? When he gave it to you, it was as if it were your toy for that moment, right? It was like you had a Bumble Bee transformer,” I said.
“John wouldn’t let me play with it. It was his favorite toy,” Eddie said.
“Oh, shit. That’s right,” I said and suddenly remembered the tug-o-war over Bumble Bee, and the arguing, swatting and tears. I had been mixing it up with one of our previous visits to John’s house, when John’s mother was in the room, and John was forced to hand over a toy.
Sharing is rough for all kids. Everything else in the house is ours. Toys are the only things they have, and the only things over which they have any control. There’s not a lot of things in their lives at this point that are theirs, and yet we force them to hand their toys over to someone else like it’s a Communist regime, and personal ownership is secondary to the party. And we do this not just because it’s a nice thing to do but because it will supposedly makes our children better people. And indeed some kids are better at sharing than others, and it seems as though those children are more giving and more generous, when in fact it’s not which kid is a better sharer but which mother is more Stalinist about it. And therein lie the secret of sharing: it’s less about generosity than about the forcefulness of the parent.
I coaxed my son out from behind the tree, and he allowed Patrick to go into the house to get the toy he wanted. A few minutes later, they all ran down the street to play with a stomp rocket, leaving behind a pile of dirty paper cups, plates with half eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And in the middle of it all was Big Hero Six.