The Caffeinated Penguin

musings of a crackpot hacker

On toddlers and property rights

Posted By on December 4, 2015

So, as most of you know, I have twin sons who turn two in a week. As is normal for children, they tend to fight over toys. However, I’ve observed the following, which I find very interesting:

Private property

They share a bedroom, but within this bedroom they have their own beds. Ownership was presumably established by the fact that they’ve always slept in the same beds (they convert from cribs to beds). I expect if we were to switch their positions in the rooms, they would continue to sleep in the bed in the same position, since the beds are otherwise identical. (This would be an interesting experiment, come to think of it).

In addition to the beds, they each have the following items over which clear ownership has been established1:

  • a baby blanket
  • a small stuffed animal (child A has an elephant, child B has a lamb)
  • a large stuffed tiger (child A has a Bengal tiger, child B has a Siberian tiger) The ownership of these items has never been in dispute. They do not need to be told to share these items and, in fact, A will often bring B B’s blanket (and the converse). They do not fight over them, and they do not share them. A taking of one of the above by the other does not even seem to be considered – it just doesn’t happen. In fact, if we do something like switch the large tigers so they are in opposite beds, the children will either cry and complain that the tigers are in the wrong beds or, more recently, will fix it themselves, as they now have the strength to do so (these stuffed tigers are the size of a Labrador).

1 I have no idea how this was established. This was emergent behavior. No one said “this is yours”. If I had to hazard a guess, I would speculate that ownership was established out of chance, because we tossed one animal in one bed and another in another bed.

The Commons

By contrast, when dealing with what is essentially “communal” property (toy cars, blocks, stuffed animals and the like), all of the standard clich├ęs of learning to “take turns” and “share” apply. They will fight over a much-desired toy, in many cases even when there are multiples of the same toy! Two toy cars, exactly the same, one child will have both, and the other child will have neither and be upset by this. There is a theory that shared property encourages overconsumption and/or hoarding in order to ensure the ability to utilize the property when you wish to do so – and that the children seem to intuitively realize this!

My part in teaching them

Of course, all of the above touches on how do you teach children about property rights, sharing, and their expectations. While I try to impress upon my children that it is nice to share, I also tell them that it is not required, and I never take toys from them to facilitate sharing. I do intervene in order to stop one child from taking a toy from the other (essentially acting as an enforcer of property rights), but that is the limit.

I do, however, encourage the child who who wants the toy to offer something in trade. Sometimes, this works well. The child with the desired toy likes what is being offered, and they engage in trade in which both are made better off. If the trade is not made, I tell the one offering the trade good that he needs to find something better, but I’m not going to make the other child give him something when he doesn’t want to. I then reassure the child who has retained the toy that he has done nothing wrong even though his brother is upset by not having the toy. If he wants to be nice, he may share it, but he doesn’t have to.

Another common trope (at least in my upbringing) was the “if you’re going to fight over it, nobody gets it”, which I absolutely abhor and have had to stop both grandmothers from instituting. After all, if you were sitting minding your own business playing with your phone, and someone came up and said “I want your phone”, and you said “no”, and then a fight ensued, and, when the police showed up, they took away your phone because “you’re fighting over it, so no one gets it”, you’d be retaining the services of a civil rights lawyer as soon as you can get to a phone (civil asset forfeiture laws notwithstanding). So, how is it suddenly acceptable to use this disciplinary logic on children? (I expect the answer is “lazy parenting” because the parents simply want the children to shut up and leave them alone so they can do whatever it is they’re trying to get done, but I’d be speculating).


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