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On sharing and toddler nature

The Professor’s mother mentioned how she thought some parents treated their children like little adults. She thought this was wrong. I asked her what she meant. Could she give me an example? All sorts of things could be described as trying to get children to behave like adults. Teaching them to walk, for instance, or encouraging them to walk as I don’t think it’s something you really teach them.

A couple of days later she got onto the subject again and it was only then that it was clear she was referring to my efforts to get The Professor to share his toys. Toddlers aren’t meant to share, she said. They’re not old enough to understand what it means.

Maybe he doesn’t understand it in the way that we do, and when it’s something he really wants his desire overwhelms the knowledge that he ought to share, like if there is just one scooter and several children then he’ll fight for that scooter. But if we’re playing with his train set and he wants me there playing with him then sometimes he doesn’t want me to touch the train, he wants to be the one to push it, and he doesn’t want me to set out the track, he wants to do that himself, and now he can do that himself. Then I tell him I don’t want to play if he won’t to share his toys with me and I go and sit on the sofa and usually he’ll say come back, daddy. I share. And he shares, for a while at least.

We often take him to his grandparents’ place where his three year old cousin lives and they always get into fights over the toys. When I was taking him the other day on the bus I was telling him to share with his cousin. We had to put three matchbox cars into his satchel and when we arrived he took out the cars and handed one to his cousin – he said thank you – one to me and one for himself. There wasn’t one for his grandmother but she didn’t mind. She’s not really into cars.

But when a few minutes later she came in with a basket of chunky toys, a big red car sitting on the top, both he and his cousin had their hands on it, tugging it in opposite directions.

I decided to see what the internet had to say on this and found some research where they’d done something called the dictator test with children of different ages. The test involves giving the child some things that they value like badges and then telling them they can give some of them away to some other child who hasn’t been given any. They found that the older the child the more likely they were to share, though of those who decided to share, how much they chose to share didn’t depend on their ages, but, unsurprisingly, it did depend on how much they valued the objects they’d been given.

When I have political arguments with right wingers on the merits of capitalism versus socialism they always seem to end up making the point that socialism can’t work because people are essentially selfish, it’s human nature, but that research seems to suggest that though it may be toddler nature to be selfish, once humans are over six or seven years old then more likely than not to share some of what they have.

I’ve never understood why people think socialism depends on people being altruistic. Any system in which wealth is more equitably distributed would, in purely material terms, benefit the majority since there is a small number of extremely wealthy people, the one percent, and then there’s the rest of us. If most of that 99% voted according to their own self interests and then we’d have a far more equal society.

Though if we had global democracy and global redistribution of wealth then I suppose most of us in a rich country like Britain would end up worse off.

One criticism you could make of that research is that it asked the children whether they wanted to share their good fortune with some unspecified and generic child. I imagine you’d get different results if the child were only given the badges after carrying out some task, so they felt they’d earned them, and if they were told that the child with no badges they were being asked to share with was badgeless because s/he was a lazy feckless child who had refused to carry out the task, then the child’s attitude might be more like that of the Germans towards the Greeks.

– What’s a Greek urn?

– Ich couldn’t giff einer scheiser zey are not any of meine geld haffing.

Maybe if I told my son, look, it’s not a very nice world we live in so you can’t let anyone take the piss. Don’t be a mug. You’ve got to take what you can get because if you don’t someone else will. But then if I told him that and he followed my advice, which I hope he might not if that’s the sort of thing I’m saying, then I’d be helping to bring about the nasty world I fear is already out there, or I’d be making it even more nasty. On the other hand, could I encourage my son to follow a course that would lead him to have a poorer existence than would otherwise be the case? I want a balance. I don’t want him to get pushed around but neither do I want him to be one of the ones doing the pushing. Though our society does reward pushiness and as a result we tend to teach our children to err on the side of pushiness. Perhaps it is better to be pushy than to be pushed, but it’s best to be neither.