Beyond Sharing: 4 Ways to Develop Generosity in Children


My kids are 4 and 3-years-old. And, for the most part, I feel like I’m a hitting a sweet spot in parenting. Everyone pees and poops in the toilet, they usually sleep through the night, and sometimes I can let them use real dishes. Today I even took a shower and no one died or cut anything with scissors. I rarely need a diaper bag. It’s pretty nice.

The flip side of the coin is that they have fully grown into their personalities and their wills, and so they’ve started fighting.

The battles are often quick but brutal. My daughter is fiercer than my son, in part because I think he knows he’ll hurt her, and so he backs down. Usually it’s over a toy or some object that is wanted by both parties.

When these fights first started, I heard the classic lines coming out of my mouth:

“You need to share.”

“Why don’t you take turns? Caleb can have it for 2 minutes and then Lily can have it for two minutes. I’ll set the timer.”

“Let your sister/brother/friend have a turn.”

I still say these things sometimes, and I don’t think they’re all bad. But, in general, I’ve come to think about sharing in different terms.

The problem with sharing isn’t that kids don’t know how and need to be instructed in the methods of giving someone else the toy. The problem is that they are selfish, as am I. I like my long hot showers, my solitude, my beer. And often, I don’t want to share either.

But the opposite of selfishness isn’t equal-parts-sharing. That’s really still just selfishness. I’ll give you your turn once I get mine, or only if mine is promised in return. The opposite of selfishness is generosity. Giving without expectation, without the promise of return. This is an attitude of the heart. I don’t expect that this will come naturally, but I can encourage it.

Here are a few strategies I’m trying. These aren’t gold; there is still a lot of fighting in my house. But I hope that over time our home will be filled with generous folks, people who are willing to do more than just begrudgingly give someone else their turn.

  1. 1. I’m changing my language.

Instead of saying things like, “Give your sister a turn”, I’m trying to say things like, “I want you to think about your sister’s needs and wants before yours. How can you be kind to her right now?” Or “I want you to share generously, not keep your toys selfishly.”

This language isn’t a magic wand; it doesn’t change my kids’ hearts. Hopefully, it just helps expose the real root of what’s going on.

  1. 2. Generosity is the standard.

Fort the most part, I try to expect generosity. In other words, if my daughter doesn’t want to share (which is most, if not all, of the time), I don’t give her the choice. If someone asks to use something, we give it right away. I use the timer very sparingly.

Having said this, I do try to be sensitive to one sibling just getting into an activity and another sibling demand it being handed over, especially since the little sister is usually the one interrupting the big brother. In these cases, I ask the big brother to figure out a way to invite his sister to play with him. I think the need for solitary play is an okay once-in-a-while desire. However, I want to be mindful of what I’m nurturing. I would rather develop an inviting spirit than a leave-me-alone attitude.

  1. 3. Guests are a special opportunity to practice generosity.

Before other kids come over to play, we talk about being generous and freely sharing all of our toys – putting our guests first. It’s easier with other kids than siblings, so I see playdates as a great chance to practice generosity. In our house, if a friend wants to play with something, we let them, especially when the guests are younger.

It’s a rare occasion that we have some sort of special toy that my kids are allowed to keep from their guests. In these instances, we put it away ahead of time so that my kids don’t get in the habit of withholding their best things from their friends.

I want the opposite for them, I want them to want to give their best to their friends. To care less about possessions and more about people. Certainly there is a place for maintaining the quality of a valuable item, but I want this to be a very rare exception.

  1. 4. Most of our stuff is shared, for all of us.

My kids have few of their own things. They’re still little, so this is easy, and don’t get me wrong – they have their special toys. Dolls, baseball gloves, gifts from grandparents. But these are few and still loosely held.

In general, we try not to refer to things as “Caleb’s blocks” or “Lily’s shopping cart”. Our Christmas gifts are mostly family gifts – a play tent, an indoor swing. We’ve given them each a few small things and obviously give them individual birthday gifts, but we don’t let gifts become the capital MINE.

Each of these strategies is tough at times, and, like I said, none of them “work” perfectly. I guess that’s the biggest strategy – I’m not trying to eliminate fights or just make things fair. I want my kids to be generous people. I believe that God is the only one who can change this in their hearts, but I can encourage it in our home.

Lindsey lives on and loves the west side of Chicago with her husband Mike and her kids – Caleb, 4 and Lily, 3. She works part time as a doula and childbirth educator and is fascinated by birth. In winter she likes to bake with sourdough, and in summer she likes everything. In all things, she is covered with God’s grace.