Generosity

A few months ago, when it was our turn for homeschool childcare swap (about which I will post more at another time), I noticed how differently my children welcomed their friends. Silas excitedly asked to get out his newest, best toys to show the other kids. He wanted them to have the best we had to offer.

Petra, on the other hand, put her favorite toys away out of sight. When V wanted to do watercolors, Petra said, “Well, I don’t want to share my watercolors!” And then she was very upset when I got out the only other watercolor set I had around–some untouched ones that were in my reserves.

I was wondering about this for several weeks. Is Silas naturally more generous than Petra? Is this an age thing? I couldn’t remember whether he was like that when he was five. If he ever wasn’t particularly generous, I don’t remember when he changed.

I don’t make my kids share their stuff, but I do ask them to do what adults do: if you don’t want to share it, put it away out of sight. Don’t let your guest see something and then tell them that they can’t have any. But also, they see me offer my guests the best I can. I get out special teacups when friends come by. I lend them favorite books. I’m sure I didn’t always have those impulses. I generally haven’t thought of myself as an especially generous person, and I wonder if this is because I overheard someone declare me selfish when I was Petra’s age and that stuck as part of my self-perception.

These questions were on my mind a bit–particularly, should I try to teach Petra generosity or should I just stand back and let her brain develop it on its own?–when a surprising answer came out of the blue.

I had signed the kids up for cognitive experiments through the Yale child development lab online. They’re not the kinds of experiments that are likely to hurt anyone, and they pay the kids in Amazon cards for short video conferences. Our first session was mostly exercises about things like “which of the circles is bigger” kinds of perception experiments, but they had a weird section at the end that consisted of stories about sharing stickers. The questions were things like, “Would you like to give all four stickers to one child, or one sticker to each of the four children?” One that I thought was quite revealing was, “Would you give a sticker to this child who is your friend, or to that child who you have never met before?” Silas said he’d give the sticker to the stranger because maybe they don’t have any friends. Petra said she’d give the sticker to her friend. I think there was also an activity where there was a possibility of keeping the stickers instead of sharing them, and she said she’d keep them.

I asked the researcher about this, and he said that caring for strangers and being excited about sharing with others is a marker of a certain developmental stage (I wish I had taken notes while he was talking!). “Most parents try really hard to push their kids to get there early, because we want our kids to seem like good people,” he said, “but it’s like talking, you can’t make it happen until the kid’s brain is developed for it.”

He said that Petra was about normal in this respect. Clearly his experiment didn’t touch on the many ways in which she’s a little … Abby-someone.

I love when my questions accidentally get answered. Especially when they put my worries about raising tiny psychopaths to rest.

I also should note that in the midst of all this questioning and worry, Petra suddenly started offering to share treasured toys with Silas, at least. She actually gave him her beloved red panda (I privately asked him to plan on giving it back to her if she changed her mind, but it’s been several weeks and she hasn’t requested its return). And she is thinking more and more about what certain friends might like to play with. I love problems that fix themselves.

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