Should We Avoid Teaching Children About Ownership?

March 18, 2016  |  parenting

buildcastleOne of the reasons I am drawn to Magda Gerber’s RIE parent/infant philosophy is that it does not advocate forcing children to share. Why? Because sharing by it’s very nature is a voluntary act — to force a child to “share” is much closer to an act of theft than it is an act of generosity (for further discussion, see my article “Sharing Is Not A Virtue“).

But on a deeper level Gerber understood, at least implicitly, Ayn Rand’s idea that knowledge is hierarchical. That means certain concepts are dependent on other, more basic concepts, and one cannot grasp or be expected to grasp an idea that relies on more basic, fundamental knowledge. For example, you cannot grasp the concept of “furniture” without first identifying a few different kinds of furniture, such as tables, chairs, book cases; you cannot understand multiplication until you grasp addition; etc.

Gerber discusses the concept of “sharing” in her book Dear Parent as follows:

“Sharing is based on knowledge of ownership and use. The owner lets someone else use an object with the knowledge that it will be returned later. But the infant has no concept of time. Only “now” exists…. We cannot expect a young child to perceive what sharing means.”

So expecting a baby (or anyone for that matter) to understand “sharing” before understanding ownership on same basic, rudimentary level (among a few other concepts, such as time) is asking the impossible and violating the hierarchy of knowledge principle.

This is the reason RIE does not introduce the idea of sharing to infants. It not because RIE is anti-ownership or pro- or anti- sharing.

Well meaning parents think our society is obsessed with concepts like “ownership” and they do not want their children “obsessed” with material things. They are drawn to Gerber’s approach because it avoids the issue altogether, “thankfully,” for as long as possible. And, the thought process continues, while we know the inevitable will happen, i.e., your child will start calling things “mine,” we should try to keep them as “pure” as possible for as long as possible, before they are “poisoned” by society’s materialism.

But ownership is not and should not be a dirty word. While it is true that some people are obsessed with the possession of material things — and at the expense of non-material values like friendship and love — that is not a condemnation of the concept of ownership but rather a misapplication of it.

So what does the idea of “ownership” mean and why does this concept even come from? Ownership is the direct result of productive work. When you build a house, it is yours. When you write a novel, it is yours.

As children, the physical things in their universe most definitely do NOT belong to them by default — they are provided by the parents, things such as toys, a bed, food, clothes, etc.

For the child, they will likely start using words like “mine” before they fully understand them. At first, ownership, to them, merely means possession. This toy is “mine” because I have it, or because I want to have it, etc. Take this into account when your child starts saying “mine.” (Often they mean “yours” and will swap other pronouns like saying “you” when they mean “me” and vice versa, so consider this too before assuming their are laying claim to everything in sight). They don’t really mean “mine” the way you think they do!

Instead of correcting them (“no, that’s Johnny’s toy, not yours!”), it is better to acknowledge what they mean (“yes, you are playing with the toy” or “I think you really want that toy”). You don’t have to make a deal about what belongs to whom.

There is the saying, “possession is 9/10ths of the law,” but it is not the whole picture. Let’s look at a child playing with a set of blocks. He may say the blocks are “his” when indeed they are actually owned by his parents, his school, or his friend. But then think about what he does with them. When he builds a tower or some other structure with the blocks, that most definitely is HIS creation. The blocks may not technically belong to him, but the arrangement of those blocks are his and only his.

This is an act of productive achievement. It is with all acts of productive achievement that result in ownership. In our advanced society, this may not be direct or apparent on the surface. When you work for an employer, for example, you are engaged in trading — trading your productive work for money with the employer. But regardless of the complexity, the most basic concept still applies: all ownership is a result of productive work first (issue of inheritance and such are red herrings: wealth must be created first before it is given away; and issues of theft are in the same boat: wealth must be created before it is stolen).

So what does this mean for the child? How does he come to discover ownership? Through play. He plays with those blocks and builds a tower — his tower. He draws a face with a stick in the sand — it is his face. He invents a story and tells it to his friends — his story.

Indeed, the idea of ownership is a wonderful discovery for the child once it is grasped, and this realization is to be celebrated, not shunned or shamed. His creations are the source of his pride and they are manifested in the physical things he creates. They are the physical evidence what makes a self-confident child.

Too often, even we adults we forget this, seeking out endless possessions as if that is what gives us worth. That is the kind of materialism most of us loathe. But when it comes to ownership, that is reversing cause and effect, and endless possessions will never provide the pride or confidence we seek unless we achieve them properly and honestly.

What does this mean for us as parents? It means we should focus on our children’s acts of creation. Avoid using concepts of ownership where it is not relevant (e.g., call it “the toy” rather than “your toy”) and use them where it is (e.g., “your drawing”). Observe how they play and the things they do with their toys (or, technically, your toys). One day they will grasp that what they’ve created is theirs, and that they created it. Don’t be alarmed by their use of words they don’t fully grasp yet — understand what they mean first and respond to that. They will learn in time. But don’t thwart or shun or shy away from ownership, or from your child grasping that what he creates is his. Recognize it when it happens in all it’s glory.