The following is one in a series of essays written by Catherine McTamaney about how to be a Montessori parent.
Sharing is Caring, Sometimes
“Share with your friends!” “Remember to share!” Children who share are seen as more generous, more kind, more social. Children who share are empathetic. Shouldn’t we insist on children sharing until they know how do to it themselves? Yes… it’s just a matter of how.
When we chose to share, we demonstrate empathy. We prioritize equity over selfishness. We tend to others’ needs. We trust that our own will be met. When we choose to share, we enact those qualities of self that our parents so dearly wanted to instill in us. The critical piece, however, is the choice. When we are forced to share, we concede. We give up what we want because someone else has insisted on it. We relinquish what we value and we lose more than just that share we gave up.
Will children learn to share, though, if they’re never forced to? Of course. In fact, they may share better by never being forced to, by experiencing instead supportive environments within which they learn the balance of self and community that earnest sharing requires.
In the Montessori classroom, for example, only one example of any material or lesson is available at a time. Children who want to use the same material must wait their turn. Likewise, children are responsible for returning the material to the shelf prepared for the next person to use. While the children don’t share the material simultaneously, they share a community within which everyone’s needs are met. They are assured by their repeated interactions in the environment that they will not go hungry. They will be safe. Their motivation to work with a material, or read a particular book, or paint at the easel, will be met, even if it’s not met right now.
By learning that delayed gratification doesn’t mean denied gratification, children are assured that there is nothing to which they need to cleave too fiercely. Their natural empathy is protected. Their natural concern for each other and for their community is preserved. With these qualities intact, their ability to share earnestly can blossom. The generosity that sharing reflects requires the confidence that you have something you can give up. Insisting that children give up what they enjoy before they understand that they will have enough may inadvertently undermine exactly what we’re trying to teach them to do. That understanding doesn’t come from a single interaction, but from the repeated experiences of a reliable environment within which everyone’s needs are met without competition or coercion.
Coercion erodes the natural tendencies of the child. Believing that children are good, we look for the ways in which we can protect that goodness. Believing that children’s goodness is inherent, we look for opportunities for it to be demonstrated authentically. If the environment offers both, the child’s nature perseveres.