At a recent family gathering, I had the opportunity to observe an interaction all-too-familiar to anyone who has spent time around small children. A three-year-old nephew of mine was playing with a new toy he had received. The truck came with a number of smaller pieces: a driver, a tiger, and various accessories. Smiling, he carried his treasure into the living room where other family members sat. Immediately his two-year-old cousin came over and seized the tiger from the back of the truck.
Naturally, my nephew tried to take back the purloined feline. Just as naturally, his cousin twisted away and clutched his prize more tightly to his chest. Plaintively, my nephew looked up with a pained expression on his face and pointed to the small plastic tiger. Sternly two or three of the adults in the room -- including his mother -- told him in no uncertain terms that, "You have to share."
I cringed. While I had in the past heard such admonitions from adults to children not even their own, this time I felt even more uncomfortable with such a pronouncement. The brief drama I had just witnessed seemed to exemplify one of the basic problems with our society. This microcosmic encounter and countless others like it have helped establish the underpinnings for a moral assault on our free society based on voluntary interactions, the sanctity of private property, and individual responsibility.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with "sharing"...but only if that concept is properly understood. Adults who attempt to teach that "sharing" is a kind of moral imperative in the manner illustrated above are, unfortunately, setting the stage for the very kinds of behavior by their children which they rail against in others.
The messages learned in childhood are often the most enduring. They are automatically incorporated before we have the intellectual ability to analyze them. Buried in the alluvial mental sludge of forgotten childhood experiences, these principles frequently guide our adult actions without ever being exposed to the light of rational questioning. Eventually, however, we will face the negative consequences of a faulty ethics and ask, bewildered, "How did this happen?"
"Sharing" done because someone makes you do it is just as much a self-contradiction as is the notion of "forced charity." Yet the fallacy of philosophical altruism which underlies the religious morality followed explicitly or implicitly by most people today is the basis for the erosion of those very principles necessary to maintain our freedoms. The redistribution of income applauded by most politicians; the cries of our citizens for "entitlements" and social welfare programs to fulfill personal needs or desires; the idea that governmental inference in our private lives is proper; and the contention that taxation, the draft, and paternalism are moral actions: all these destructive believes and actions can trace their roots to the kind of mind-set which says to innumerable and defenseless small children such as my nephew that, "You have to share"...whether you want to or not.
The good intentions of parents and adults who voice such commandants do not alter the damage they are implicitly creating. They feel they have fulfilled their parental duties when -- sure enough! -- the children surrenders his toy to the uncertain mercies of that other small child. If by chance the toddler-owner should further resist, he is accused of being "selfish"...even though that opprobious label is somehow never attached to the toyless child grabbing and demanding that he be given access to the first child's possessions.
The implicit messages parents send by their orders to "share" are many: that your private property does not really belong to you; you can enjoy use of it only until someone stronger than you comes along and demands that you surrender it; that the initiation of such implied force is necessary to proper morality; that the surest avenue for gaining what you want from someone is not by negotiating for it but rather demanding that you need or simply desire that person's property; that your own desires to hold on to what you already want and possess must be submerged beneath the desires or needs of those-who-have-not regardless of whether or not they deserve any such help or assistance; and that self-interest is bad and must -- and will -- be punished.
Through countless such little morality plays, children grow into adults who accept the demeaning altruistic ethics which continue to mushroom in strength with each passing year. The adult or parent gets translated into a paternalistic government ready to use the coercive power of the state to force you to act as they deem you should. The homeless, those sans health insurance, every student, business person, or elder jealous of others who have what they do not and who demand that "government do something about it" emerge from the whining cries of those toyless children who "want" and "need" regardless of what they themselves have done or earned...or what other children want.
But a free society cannot survive by following such moral principles. A just society demands that all transactions be voluntary; that no one initiate force directly or indirectly; that rational self-interest be the only proper ethical guideline; that someone else's needs or desires do not give him license to enslave you...even a little; that the only proper function of a government is protect our rights to life, liberty, and property...not to violate them.
Might does not make right, neither for individual adults nor for political agents.
If parents want to instill the correct view of the concept "sharing," they first need to understand it themselves. Few would ever countenance from another adult the kind of actions they impose on their children. Imagine someone -- even a relative -- coming up to you and demanding that you "share" your car or your house or your bank account merely because that person needed or wanted what you possessed and they did not. Imagine how you would feel if that individual brought along a thug or a gang of thugs to force you to accede to his demands if you should be so "selfish" as to resist and want to decide for yourself how to control the use of what you own. Imagine how you would respond if he were to take your car despite your protests and told you not to complain because you would "get it back"...eventually.
Imagine how your children feel when you do that to them.
To teach your children to share, you should tell them first that what is theirs is theirs: they need not share if they do not want to. By the same token, they cannot use the toys of other children if they prefer not to share. The proper course for them to follow is to ask. If the other resists, they should offer an exchange of some kind: this duck for that elephant. If the answer is still no, they should either increase their offer or be satisfied with what they already have. Under no circumstances should a child be allowed simply to seize what another is using. (A principle of non-interference supported by Montessori schools.) If another child should take a toy your child does not want to give up, the aggrieved party should feel free to come to you to rectify the problem, i.e., to return the toy, not to take the side of the infant thief against the innocent victim.
Voluntary interactions, exchanges, and negotiation; the non-initiation of force; the sanctity of private property; the morality of rational self-interest; a government designed to protect rights, not to violate them: these form the foundations for a free market, a free society, and a free individual.
My nephew implicitly understood the proper relationship between property and the person who owns it. By appealling to the morality of altruism, the adults around him at best confused him and at worst further weakened the ethical fiber that created this culture and has, until recently, sustained it. It is a lesson that more adults need to learn...and quickly.
From the mouths of babes...