Share and Share Alike

I once worked in an establishment in which one of my fellow managers would sign off nearly every email with the cloying “Sharing is Caring!”  Right after I vomited all over my keyboard, I was always tempted to hit Reply to All and type “I’m diabetic and you’re making me ill!”

You have to wonder whether she was an abused child who grew up feeling the need to excuse herself for living or whether perhaps her toddler left her an unfortunate victim of BTPDO (Barney the Purple Dinosaur Overload).  Either way, someone desperately needed to tell her that communication with one’s fellow managers is an expected part of the job and that there’s no need to make excuses for doing so.  I’m sure others laughed about her behind her back, but no one, myself included, was willing to take her in a padded room and slap her upside the head.

Only years later did I come to understand that:  1. Communication (and the lack thereof) is a really huge issue in the corporate world, and 2. Sharing, whether of ideas or of possessions, is a visceral thing that has roots deep in childhood.

As I don’t have children of my own, I live in a fully adult world and generally think about kids as little as possible.  This started to change somewhat two years ago when my little grandniece was born, and even more so a year ago when my wife and I became one of her regular caregivers.  Now that she’s two years old, her mom decided that she needed to socialize with other kids her age and, after a whole lot of wrangling, managed to get her into a good day care program.  From all accounts, the little one loves it.  There are lots of toys to play with, the teachers actually do teach lessons, and there are plenty of girls and boys to get to know.  She’s even making progress on her potty training, much to the relief of all of us.

Now, I don’t really think that kids of that age need to be “taught” anything.  For one thing, they are natural born sponges who soak up everything they see and hear.  (Uh, watch it with a couple of those words you like to use, dear nephews o’ mine.)  For another, their job is to play and be kids.  There’s plenty of time to teach them academics later on.  Childhood is short enough as it is.

So just what do they teach kids at day care and nursery school anyway?  Mostly the Barney curriculum, from what I hear:  “ABCs and 1-2-3s and how to be a friend.”  Apparently, it’s all about socialization skills.  For example, you’re supposed to learn to say “please” and “thank you.”  Little One has already learned that one at home, and she even says “you’re welcome” regularly.  Not that I give a fig, to be honest.  While displaying the trappings of courtesy may make you well-liked by adults, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other.  I don’t stand on ceremony and I no more care whether a kid thanks me when I give him a piece of candy than I do whether the bar mitzvah boy writes me a painfully stinted thank you note for his gift.

When I was growing up, I rarely if ever heard my parents say “please” or “thank you” to each other.  (In my mother’s case, I don’t think I ever heard her use those words with anyone.)  Looking back, I guess it makes sense.  Half the time they were too busy screaming at each other to bother with such pleasantries.  Nevertheless, my parents expected their kids to say “please” and “thank you” when we were out in public, and particularly among adults.  They regularly became upset with us when we didn’t, and never seemed to wonder why.

About the time I became a teenager, however, I figured out that most adults were really rather shallow and would hold you in high esteem if you used those stupid words.  So I practiced the pleasantries until I became good at them.  You could have knocked over my junior high assistant principal with a feather when I addressed him as “sir.”  Of course, that may have had something to do with the fact that half the ninth grade was standing out on the front lawn shouting “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your [expletive] war.”

These days, I say “please” and “thank you” about a hundred times a day, both at home and at work, without even thinking about it.  After all these decades, it comes automatically.  My wife and I use those words with each other dozens of times each day, and I must grudgingly admit that this probably does set a good example for the little pipsqueak.

All in all, I guess it’s good that early on my grandniece has learned the words required for entrée into polite society.  Unlike her quacked-up video pals Huey, Dewey and Louie, I doubt that she’ll ever need a copy of The Big Book of Manners.

But then there’s that old bugaboo, the S-word.  No, not the one that my renegade nephews like to use, the other one.  That’s right, “sharing.”

I don’t pretend to be up-to-date on modern theories of child rearing, but it is my understanding that teaching sharing consists primarily of conveying the idea that you can’t hog the toys because the other kids need a chance to play with them, too.  This is a true childhood classic that has been around forever, celebrated by everyone from Dr. Spock to Robert Fulghum.  And I don’t agree with it.

While I don’t particularly care whether or not kids use all those “polite” words (frankly, I think they’re kind of ridiculous), at least I can see how doing so can be a valuable skill in the adult world.  But sharing?  Oh, boy, don’t get me started.

I had to prowl around online a bit to discover what others are saying about sharing, kind of my way of licking my finger and holding it up to test the wind direction, before proceeding to shoot myself in the foot in this space.  What I found is that sentiment seems about evenly divided on the issue.  Some parents require their kids to share their toys, believing that childhood sharing is the gateway to adult generosity.  Others align more closely with my own views that a kid’s things belong to him or her and that he or she should not have to share them with anyone.

I have long believed that the rabid way in which many parents insist that their children share is not for the benefit of the child, but for the benefit of the parents themselves.  Most of us are not wealthy, and if we have two or three children, we may not be able to afford to buy two or three of every toy so that each kid can have his or her own.  After all, kids have short attention spans, so there should be no reason that they can’t take turns playing with their toys.  Kids, unfortunately, do not see things quite this way.  Well, that’s why they have parents, right?  Children are naturally self-absorbed and it is our job as parents to socialize the little brutes.

Yada, yada.  I wish that, just once, I would hear a parent admit that they require their kids to take turns because doing so tends to avoid The Three Plagues:  Temper tantrums, late night trips to the hospital, and social workers.  It would also be lovely to hear a parent admit that she forces her progeny to share because she can’t afford to buy three copies of this fifty dollar piece of dreck that the kid is whining for because it is advertised on TV a million times a day.

I endeavor to make kindness a major part of my life, and I attempt to incorporate that sentiment into everything I say and do.  Nevertheless, I believe that sharing is of very little value to success in adulthood, at least in our American society.  There have to be other ways to teach generosity and kindness (leading by example, for one).

I mean, come on… I am not going to let you share my car, my computer or my cell phone.  (I can hear it now:  “What?! You won’t let someone use your phone to make a call if their phone has gone dead?”  A friend of ours did this at the airport recently and promptly had her bank account cleaned out.)  If you would like to borrow a pair of my pants or one of my shirts, fine.  (If you can fit into them, I feel sorry for you.)  Just bring them back the way you found them, please, freshly washed and on their hangers.

As a child of the Dr. Spock era, I was raised to share.  Everything.  “Share with your sister!”  “Share with your friend!”  “Why don’t you give some to that little boy?”  And so, as an adult, I had to learn the hard way about lending out my things.  It took me a while to figure out that if I’d spot someone a twenty, I’d never see it again.  I lent out my car to Little One’s mom last year and she wrecked it.  My wife and I can’t afford to replace it and have had to learn to make do with one car between us.

If that’s not enough, the creeping crud is going around at work, and I have had it for the past two weeks and am now just barely starting to get over it, thanks to two doctors and two sets of antibiotics.  Do you think I’m going to allow anyone to put his or her grubby, germy little hands all over my things?  I think not!  And neither should you, my dearest grandniece!

I have no control over what they teach you at day care or at home, dear one.  However, you will never see this uncle asking you to share anything of yours.  As for playing with others, no, you can’t take away a toy from another kid because you happen to feel like playing with it right now.  But neither can another kid take away a toy from you when you are playing with it.  And you don’t have to share your cookies with them, either.  They have their own parents (and uncles) to give them treats to take to day care.  What’s that you say?  They’re poor and don’t have any cookies at home?  Uh, well, dear one, I hate to break it to you, but your mommy is a single teenaged mother without two nickels to rub together who is trying to go to school while working the graveyard shift at a drugstore.

I know you’re too young to understand right now, but in our great American society, we have a little thing called “personal property.”  Not every culture embraces this paradigm, but it is very much a central ethos of ours.  If someone breaks into your house or steals your car, we call them a “criminal.”  You will work hard to buy most of your things.  Other things may be given to you in love by those who are close to you.  In either case, you are not required to share them with anyone.  And I, for one, refuse to require you to share as a child when you should not be sharing as an adult.

Now, dear one, if you want to learn the proper way to be generous, carefully observe the work we do here at the church, the homeless people we feed, the random acts of kindness we so enjoy engaging in.  None of that means that you are expected to share with someone just because they ask you to.

Oh, and please do me one favor, dear grandniece.  Never, ever sign your emails “sharing is caring.”  Barney and his sickening “I love you” song notwithstanding.