My daughter figured out sharing pretty early. Maybe as an only child, she thought sharing would endear her to other children. Maybe she got the sharing gene in her DNA strand. Whatever the reason, she likes to share. She was the kid at parties who walked around with a bowl of cherries, moving with a smile from person to person. “Would you like some fruit?” she would ask, and then continue on to the next person. She got lots of adult attention for this: “Oh Luca, I love how you share.” And, “That’s so generous, so kind…” That might not be why she started sharing, but I’m sure it’s part of why she continues.
According to a study published in Science, Luca should start outgrowing that sharing thing pretty soon. Sharing is something we do well as young children, but then, this study argues, we’re less interested in as we age. “How Children Outgrow Socialism” argues that children’s views on fairness shift from egalitarian to merit-based as they grow older.
Norwegian young people, ages 10 to 18, went through an “economics experiment” to determine how they would divvy up a pool of money. You can see more details here, but the moral of the research is this: Sharing is a childish thing. We leave it behind as we grow older. According to Alexander Cappelen, one of the authors of the study, it’s not clear what triggers the change in philosophy, from fairness to meritocracy, but he believes it may be the result of increasing exposure to achievement-based activities like sports and standardized tests. “Young children are rarely rewarded for individual achievement. There is an extremely egalitarian culture in their school life. But as they get older they are exposed to more meritocratic institutions, and that might change their views on equality,” he says. In other words, this is true because we make it true. It’s what we teach them.
This depresses me. What an unloving thing we do to our children. We move them away from the first beliefs we pass on to them: that every one of us, no matter who we are, matters just because we are born, we breathe, and we live. And then we contradict all of that by shifting to this idea that your worth is based on what you do and how well you do it. And that the winner matters. And that the winner really did win.
So, what is the next step for Luca and other kids? At what point is she supposed to realize, hmmm, if I just sit here with this bowl of cherries in front of me, then maybe I’ll get more for myself? Or maybe I’ll keep passing the bowl around but instead of just giving them out, I’m going to see this as upping my social capital. And this social capital is going to help me find a better job, a free cabin for the weekend, or just a well-dressed group of friends to be seen with on the weekend. So five cherries for you with the family cabin, three cherries for you with the large professional network, and one for you because you are kind and will make me smile when I am sad.
Sounds funny, doesn’t it? The thing is, if we are truly honest, the chatter in our heads isn’t far off this kind of evaluation. We–and I include myself in that “we”−spend a lot of time assessing ourselves in relation to others–am I getting my fair share or should I speak up and demand a little more? It’s how we organize our democracy. Political life in the electoral and policy world is a constantly changing score card of who did what for whom and how much did it cost. Paying back favors can rate higher than “doing the right thing.” It’s all about whether or not I get mine, not whether or not we have enough to go around for all of us.
We have created this way of being. We pass it on to our children. This is not the way it has to be.
Each of us is born to experience life. How we experience life is up to a whole range of things: genetics, experience, culture, and so on. We experience life so that we can survive it and then pass life on to the next generation.
But of course that isn’t the end of the story. Nowhere in Luca’s genes does it say, “At age 13 you will grab your own bowl of cherries and run away, handing out the occasional fruit to those who you deem worthy but otherwise keeping those sweet red orbs for yourself.” There is nothing that says that how we share can’t be a continually evolving and ever-wiser system for relationship and community. There is no reason why “sharing” can’t be a measure of our strength, or our compassion and clarity.
I’m thinking that this study needs to go a step further. The question isn’t whether or not children outgrow socialism. The question is whether or not we can learn to stay connected to each other enough to keep sharing, even when it gets harder. My family, my community, is going to keep encouraging Luca to pass around her bowl of cherries because there are enough to go around. Because the fruit just tastes sweeter when we are all eating it. And because, in the end, the wisest most knowing thing we can do is to practice the hard work of really caring about and for each other. For no other reason than because we all breathe.
A version of this blog post originally appeared at Bilerico.com.
My daughter figured out sharing pretty early. Maybe as an only child, she thought sharing would endear her to other children. Maybe she got the sharing gene in her DNA strand. Whatever the reason, she likes to share.