What Can the Hornbills Teach Us About Sharing?

by Dr Angel Adams, Dr Patricia Papciak

“If you want to go fast, go alone
if you want to go far, go together.”

– African proverb

We would like to tell a few stories about sharing. First, we have a friend who works at a zoo who recently told us about the hornbills. They are very exotic birds that come from tropical forests in Thailand, Malaysia, India and Africa. The hornbills are extremely interesting because they have monogamous relationships that last for life. The main reason for this is that their reproduction process requires the female hornbill to trust the male hornbill to feed her for 4 ½ months during the incubation period of her eggs. Before mating, he offers her a food gift (an insect or a fruit). The nest is usually made in a tree hole. She, in fact, muds herself into it! She closes her nest completely with mud and dung and leaves open only enough space for her partner to give her food through this opening during the time she is inside the nest. Can you imagine that Mr Hornbill can bring up to 24,000 fruits for Mrs Hornbill during the whole period of nesting? Wow!

Image: A great Indian hornbillAfter 4 months, Mrs. Hornbill tears down the mud around her abode and reappears with her young to present to Mr. Hornbill. Now that’s sharing! There are many other animals that share with each other and depend on that sharing to keep the species alive, but the hornbills may be the ultimate sharers as they are believed to be the birds with the highest occurrence of cooperative breeding. Here is a video that shows a short clip of these amazing birds.

The life of the hornbills is a wonderful story to tell your children because it helps them to see that even in nature, trusting and sharing is such an important way of life. Besides the absolute basic necessities of life such as food, warmth, and sleep, there is nothing else more important than our interaction with other people. If we could all learn to share, and truly understand the sharing process, perhaps we could avoid some of the horrible things that go on in the world.

We all know about sharing. We know that we like it when others share. We know that sharing makes us feel good. We know how special we feel when our spouses or partners share in the raising of children. So why in the world don’t we share more than we do???

It may be easy to share things that we don’t care much about or that have already been used, but what about sharing when someone really needs something and you really want it too? What about sharing personal stories and secrets that might embarrass us? Some parents believe that they should not share with their children stories that have been embarrassing to them and others tell their children everything. We call that giving TMI (too much information). We think there is an important balance that must be addressed when it comes to sharing thoughts and ideas. If your child can really learn something from what you want to share, and it won’t make your child lie in bed awake at night worried about the mysteries of the past involving his/her family, it probably is a good idea to let him or her in on some of the family issues. It’s also constructive to let your child know that you have some vulnerabilities or weaknesses that you have accepted, overcome or are still dealing with.

A huge part of sharing is trusting. We need to trust that the other person won’t judge us unreasonably. We tend to share more when we feel safe. (Hence the story of the hornbills.) We share something of value when we believe the person we are sharing with will respect and value the item as we do. We want to feel good when we share. It’s never fun to give something to someone and then watch them just toss it aside as though it is easily disposable. But with children, we can never know that until we teach them to value what we value.

Have you ever given your children something special that was given to you? You have cherished it and you want them to cherish it too. Upon initially receiving the item, they appear to appreciate it the way you want them to, however later on when you ask about it, it may be that they have misplaced it or even lost it. This may not be because they don’t value it, it may be due to the fact that they are too young to know how to protect it or they are forgetful and organisationally challenged, and later can end up feeling shameful for their behaviour.

When we share stories with our children, the same problem can possibly occur. We share something that is very important to us, and then we hear them share it with someone in a way that makes light of it or minimizes the importance to us. They may have not heard what we’ve said clearly and they tell someone else without getting the facts straight. It’s a fine line about sharing in a way where what you share is appreciated the way you want it to be appreciated.

The age of a child is important when making these decisions. Children may not be developmentally ready to share and are egocentric until a certain age. For example, a toddlers mental concept is everything is “mine”! Preschool children start to intellectually understand about sharing, but it is generally not until the age of 7 that a child genuinely learns to share. This was researched by Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich, as his studies showed that around age 7-8 equality and altruism become important to children and they are more willing to share. It confirmed that the capacity for their sharing matures along with their bodies.

No matter what the age, it is important to share in order to teach sharing. If parents do not share their feelings appropriately with their children, by either burdening them with too many of their emotions or by keeping most things to themselves (hence the balance we mentioned earlier), then their children may not reap the benefits from positive role modelling. Children also may be afraid to share with their parents because their parents have reacted in a negative way, and now they will be cautious to share with them in the future. They may be frightened of how their parent will react to their new feelings and experiences as adolescents. It is true that developmentally teenagers begin the separation process at this age and they do not want to share their private feelings with their parents. Yet it is also very important for the path to be open if they want to check with their parent about what they are doing. They may be fearful, and parents need to make it clear that they will listen and be respectful of whatever their children say, even if they do not agree with it.

We can help our children to understand about sharing in the big picture by reading children’s books where animals and children share. This way children are more ready to read the stories of other cultures where they can see a process of give and take with other people and other animals in the world. The lessons that both other cultures and birds/animals can teach us are invaluable. Helping others can be its own reward, and in fact this is confirmed by many biologists and scientists. Selfless acts give us a warm glow inside and this is confirmed by personal experience as well as neurological studies, which show that that sharing and altruism can trigger activity in parts of the brain involved in feelings of reward.

Let your children know that even monkeys can be chuffed when they share with their friends. At the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Frans de Waal’s team of scientists has investigated the selfless side of brown capuchin monkeys. De Waal put the capuchins through three blocks of ten trials and even during the first set, they were more likely than not to choose the token (tasty treats) that benefited the other monkey. Each monkey was given a choice between two differently coloured tokens. Both would earn it a rewarding piece of apple but only one token would net a slice for a second monkey sitting in an adjacent transparent compartment.

By the end of the experiment, they were selecting the “prosocial” tokens about two-thirds of the time. The study shows that like humans, these monkeys tended to show their strongest amount of empathy towards their closest friends and family. They were most likely to pick the prosocial tokens when the other monkey was a blood relative. They were also willing to help out unrelated members of the same group but stopped when it came to unrelated strangers.

Image: Capuchin monkeys

Photo: Frans de Waal (public domain)

Here are some tips to help your children develop the gift of sharing:

  1. Help them to create a book with pictures and thoughts that are personal to them but which they might like to share with others. They can show the book to others in the family, and they can ask members of the family if they would like to add something to the book to share with others who read it.
  2. Sharing memories is an effective way to talk about what it is to share. Keep a book that has blank pages in it on a living room or kitchen table. When something funny happens or even something tragic, they can write about what has happened. When they have read later what they have written, they can share their feelings about each event.
  3. Keep a journal of the important things that your children say or do when they are young. They will love to hear about their childhood behaviour when they get older. Not only are children humoured by hearing what they have said and done, but they are unconsciously acknowledged by the fact that you, as the parent, took the time to write down these important moments so that they could be shared at a later date.
  4. Show children pictures of how animals share in the wild. This is especially good for children with autism who often respond better to visual images then to the spoken word.
  5. Have family meetings routinely where on the agenda there is time for each family member can share something significant that happened for them during the week.
  6. Have your own personal family Ex-Factor where each child can go on centre stage (without judges). One child can recite a poem written, the other can sing while playing the guitar, another can show a magic trick, or a youngster can share their new arithmetic solving skills.
  7. Make up a family rule that when children fight over toys or family possessions, the toy is taken a way until the pair can show they can share and that is how they can earn it back. (Make sure it is age-appropriate).

The photos below are related to our second story about sharing. Owen is a baby hippopotamus who survived the tsunami waves on the Kenyan coast where wildlife rangers rescued him. Owen formed a strong bond with a giant male tortoise named Mzee who is 130 years old. They met each other at an animal facility. Owen weighs about 300 kilograms (650 pounds) and Mzee seems to be very happy with being a father figure according to ecologist Paula Kahumbu, who is in charge of Lafarge Park. They share: their food, a place to sleep, taking walks together, the coolness of muddy water on a hot day, eye-contact and most of all tenderness seen in their snuggling, nudging and bonding.

Image: Owen and Mzee

(for a must see video: click on Owen and Mzee music video here) http://www.owenandmzee.com/omweb/flash/mediacenter/mediacenter.html

Finally, if you are having difficulties with a child or an estranged adolescent, and you feel lost as to how to reconnect, find the place in your own being where you can truly reach out with the deepest love to nurture that wounded relationship. This might mean to say very little for the time and bring them a small gift that you know they will like, or invite them to do something that they will enjoy. You can reflect on one of their interests, or something positive you noticed or know about them in a kind and non-judgemental way. If they don’t respond the first time, don’t give up as you want to mend the relationship. Eventually you will be able to bring them back into the arena where they remember how they love you. “Love has a way of finding you when you need it the most”. When you can feel the warm and close feelings on both sides of the relationship, it is so easy to break down those barriers and share what is meaningful to share. There is a feeling of light around you.

Anam Cara by John O’Donohue is a book that addresses Celtic wisdom. It is a book that is both poetic, spiritual and philosophical. When O’Donohue is talking about friendship, he talks about “the candlelit world of the soul.” He says, “Perhaps the light of the soul is like Rembrandt’s light—that tawny, gold light for which Rembrandt’s work is known. This light gives you such a real sense of the depth and substance of the figures on whom it gently shines.” (p.25) This is such a beautiful thought. You can often feel that glow when you are experiencing a moment of sharing with someone you love. But it is up to you to create this feeling of illumination.

Mr and Mrs Hornbill probably aren’t thinking about what kind of light they need to share their food. They are just hungry and need to be fed so that they can procreate and keep their species alive in the world. Sometimes that is all we are able to do as humans. It is our goal however, to keep you motivated to see your existence beyond simple consciousness and to open yourself and your children to the possibility of your most unique, meaningful and creative existence, nurtured by sharing and expanded by the understanding and knowledge of birds, reptiles, animals, and peoples of the world.


Thanks for taking the time to read this Monday’s Motivational article.

Please feel free to send me any comments or your own stories you wish to share, or post them on this site by leaving a comment below.

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