As the season of gift gluttony, parking lot insanity and checkout line lunacy fades to a distant memory, it's worth contemplating a nagging and perennial question:
Why are we so bad at sharing?
We fret and fuss at our kids for fighting over the new Xbox 360, even as we fume at having to share the grocery store, the post office and the health club with our grown-up brethren. We encourage our children to share their prized possessions, even as we hog the spotlight when the boss attends a staff meeting.
Sharing is one of the most difficult, yet most critical, skills in every walk of life; interactions with family, friends, co-workers and strangers alike benefit from a healthy dose of it. We know this. And yet …
"Humans are hard-wired to be conflicted about sharing," says Kansas State University psychology professor Mark Barnett, who specializes in the study of pro-social behavior in children.
"In terms of survival, it makes sense for us to keep things for ourselves and be selfish," Barnett says. "But we're also inherently social creatures who display empathy, even as infants, on a very primary level. I think that's why we feel so much conflict."
The question, then, is how to summon those better angels of our nature that President Abraham Lincoln so eloquently invoked. And equally important: How do we nurture them in our children?
"I don't think you can share if you have no empathy for another person," says Alice Sterling Honig, professor of child development at Syracuse University in New York. "The question is, how do you build empathy?"
Our experts offer some ideas.
Model selflessness. "If volunteering becomes a regular family practice, and kids know the kind of contentment and satisfaction they can get from that, it starts to build that muscle that wants to reach out," says Homa Sabet Tavangar, author of "Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World" (Ballantine Books). "So maybe when you're feeling sad, it becomes an opportunity to help others, rather than an opportunity to go shopping."
Small acts at home can reinforce sharing and empathy as well — delivering clothes to a facility for children who are handicapped or ill, Honig suggests, or, "collecting for UNICEF while you're trick-or-treating. Sharing is really about making things better between people."
The trick is giving yourself and your kids the opportunity to set those improvements in motion.
"As you get more experience sharing, splitting something in half isn't a stretch," Tavangar says. "You start to see that it doesn't really hurt that much. In fact, the opposite is true: It's a source of happiness."
Offer security. "Empathy starts at birth," says Honig, who cites research showing that newborn infants cry harder in response to the sound of other infants' cries than to the sound of their own cries piped back to them.
How to cultivate that inborn trait?
"The most important variables are secure trust and a secure attachment," Honig says. "Once you understand that someone who you truly know cares about your comfort and figures out what you need to feel better, research shows you can be far more generous with others. You play better, forgive better, share better, find resolutions with others better. You grow up to be a more secure, pro-social person."
Offering that kind of security means sniffing out what our loved ones — of all ages — need and being willing to meet those needs.
"You have to make a correct diagnosis to really help others," Honig says. "It's not just shoving a bottle in a crying baby's mouth or 'My wife's unhappy. I'll buy her a new thing.'"
Make do with a little less. Buying a new thing, or things, can, in fact, have the opposite effect.
"There's a lot of truth to the idea that the less people have, often the more willing they are to share," Tavangar says. "In cultures where there isn't as much instant gratification, where there isn't such an awareness of, 'This is mine,' you often see patterns of sharing."