Over the past twenty-four hours, I have been thinking about “sharing”. In my conversation with our nanny yesterday, she said that she gets overwhelmed with how much our two older kids, Jade and Siena, fight. Most of their fights are about property rights – to whom something belongs to and who took what of whose. Our nanny said that she realizes that our culture is much more individualistic but that kids in Colombia are brought up to share from a very young age and that she just doesn’t know what to do.
I wasn’t sure what to say so I have been thinking about it a lot. I am an only child and have absolutely no reference point on what is “normal” sibling behavior. I often find myself overwhelmed and frustrated by the fighting but have been told by American friends and by my husband, that our kids’ behavior is pretty normal. You might also remember that just a few weeks ago, our ceramics teacher gushed about how amazed she was about Jade’s, our nine year old’s, sharing ability, how she seemed to give truly, from the heart to her classmates, and not out of a sense of obligation. We even talked about a theory I read in a parenting book early on in my mothering career, that kids aren’t ready to share until the age of six or so and that while we, as parents, can pressure, guilt or shame them into sharing earlier than they are ready, they will do it only out of obligation or to avoid punishment when we are around. However, if we respect their right to truly own their things until they are ready to share (as in letting them put away special toys before a friend comes over), they will share from the heart as they get older.
This theory struck a cord with me and I have used it so I felt pretty proud of myself when I heard the ceramics teacher’s feedback. I excused the fighting in our house as normal sibling squabbling.
And maybe it is, but my nanny’s comment has made me think, not only about how we are raising our kids, but about the bigger cultural differences in sharing. People share everything here. I think back to numerous school picnics in the US, where we each brought our own food and while we might share some of it, it was very much at our discretion and usually after we had finished eating as much as we wanted. There was sharing but I would call it “limited sharing”.
Here in Colombia, on the other hand, it would be unthinkable to not share everything you brought to a picnic from the get go. Even if your kids are starving and the other family has brought food they don’t eat, it doesn’t matter, you share all that you brought. This applies to everything – whatever you have, you share.
I remember an encounter a few months ago when my parents were visiting us here that really brought this cultural difference to light. I took my parents to the Salt Cathedral (a gorgeous cathedral built underground in a salt mine) and we went on a guided tour, just the three of us and a Swiss tourist. Of course, we chatted with the Swiss man throughout the tour and when it was over, I found myself ravenous. There was a little stand selling nuts and I asked my parents if they wanted some. They declined so I bought some for myself. The Swiss man did not and it was clearly not a question of him not having enough money.
The package was tiny and I was starving. I thought to myself as I opened it, “do I offer him some?’ In the North American/ European cultural context it seemed strange to offer nuts to a man I just met but having at that point been in Colombia for several months, it seemed unthinkable not to offer some to him.
When in Rome… I felt too uncomfortable not offering him nuts and eating them on my own. His reaction to my offer was “Oh, no, thank you. You bought them for yourself.”
He seemed genuinely surprised and uncomfortable that I offered him the nuts. So much so that I felt like I had committed some impropriety. I just had to say, “I know that in our cultures we normally wouldn’t share food in this context but here in Colombia, it’s unthinkable to eat and not share so I wanted to offer you some.” He smiled and took some nuts.
That incident stayed with me for a long time and my nanny’s observation brought up some old questions. How much to share? When to share? How do I want to raise my kids in terms of sharing and generosity? Even my Ukranian roots culture is much more one of “sharing” than the American one I was raised in. I remember growing up that friends of my parents would drop in, without calling first, at all hours and my parents would immediately set the table and put out food and drink, no matter what time of day it was or whether it was convenient. Likewise, if a friend called and needed any favor, they would drop everything and immediately do it, whether it was convenient for them or not. No question. The needs of others always seemed to trump their own.
There is such heart and warmth in this kind of generosity and I have tried to emulate it as much as possible. But there are also boundary issues. Having been raised in the States, I am not inclined to share, especially of my time, if it’s inconvenient for me. In fact, I can be downright stingy with my time, my most precious commodity. This way of thinking and living has definitely been put to the test in Colombia. Being stingy with your time is just downright rude here.
So back to, how do I want to be? What values do I want to pass on to my kids? How to come up with something that feels right given all the different cultural influences at play? I don’t yet have any answers. I am still sitting with the questions.