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Tuesday, October 4, 2022
Home Family Parenting Advice But It's Mine! Property Rights and Disputes—Good Parenting

But It’s Mine! Property Rights and Disputes—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,
What is the best way to handle disputes between my children, ages 4 and 6 ½, over toys, the “best” seat on the couch, the last tangerine, etc.?

I remember a lot of physical altercations with my siblings, resulting in rule by intimidation or sneaky thievery, and would like to teach my children a better way.

Rule of Law

 

Dear RoL,

Ah, the law of tooth and nail. Not the best framework for a civil society, nor a happy family. Property disputes are more common between children when the rules aren’t clear, or aren’t consistently enforced. Physical domination should not be the rule. But are there rules that your children would easily follow?

A research team was interested to find out whether children think along lines similar to the principles adults (and law) commonly apply when it comes to property disputes. Gustavo Faigenbaum, Mariano Sigman, and Leandro Pablo Casirhagi  (Center of Medical Education and Clinical Research in Buenos Aires, Argentina) set up an experiment in which a child is shown illustrations while a short story is narrated. In this experiment, the child is not actually in a dispute, but rather is asked to settle the dispute between two fictitious characters. Prior to the experiment, adults were asked to decide the rightful owner in each story and explain why. Then, after editing the stories to make the choices more equal, children from 4 ½ to 8 ½ years-old were tested.

Below are examples of the principles that were identified and tested – with each story pitting one principle against another.

  1. Creation – The object did not exist before. The one who made it is the owner.
  2. Discovery – One person finds an item before anyone else does and is therefore the owner.

The story that pits Creation against Discovery goes like this: The first character finds some logs in the woods and puts them behind a rock before continuing his walk. He plans to retrieve them on his way back home. The second character discovers the pile of logs (unguarded, unlabeled) and quickly builds them into a crude chair. The first character returns and expects that the chair is now his. Does the chair belong to the Creator of the chair or to the Discover of the logs?

These two principals, Creation and Discovery, were also pitted against the Transaction and Occupation principles (see below), also Transaction was pitted against Occupation, to make a total of 6 stories. Interestingly, children more often cited Creation or Discovery, as opposed to Transaction or Occupation, as the reason one character should have the object in question.

      3.Transaction – A person gains possession of an object because he bought it (or traded for it), or it was freely given to him.
      4. Occupation – A second person has been using the item for a period of time, perhaps without the first owner’s knowledge or consent.

Adults were more likely to grasp the complexity involved when an object passes hands – willingly or unwillingly, as in a mutually agreed Transaction or in an unsanctioned Occupation.
Children were more likely to believe that if, “She had it first” she should keep the object when the alternative choice was based on Transaction or Occupation. Indeed, noted the researchers, children as young as two-years-old can accept, albeit reluctantly, that someone else was using an item as a reason to hand it back. Certainly, the toddler who has put down the item only moments ago expects to still be able to use it.

Principled Discipline
These principles can be applied to the conflicts your children have, providing a framework to which you can refer before, during, and after a dispute. Nevertheless, according to the study, you should expect that, “I saw it first!” (or, “I made it!”) will be easier for your children to understand than, “But you weren’t using it anymore!”

For example, one child leaves his Lego structure on the coffee table and goes out to play. The family rule, honoring the Creation principle, prohibits the second child from using the abandoned work to make a new structure out of the pieces unless he first gains permission from the first child.

The researchers speculate that some time around age 10, children are better able to live by the principles of Transaction and Occupation. In the meantime, you can support your children’s social development with frequent, and consistent, references to the principle that applies best.

What About Equity?
Alas, the study did not look for children’s ability to judge fairness based on need. (Other researchers have looked cross culturally to see how this develops.) For example, one child discovers, “Hey, there’s a tangerine in the fruit bowl!” If your family operates with the Discovery principle, the second child, though just as desirous of the tangerine, is out of luck. Unless your family adheres to an Equity principle. If so, it’s easy enough to split that tangerine in half for the two children. Your children will learn this principle if you apply it as consistently as you do the others.

Adults are key for prevention and intervention to help children master the principles that underlie society’s laws and the functioning of healthy relationships. Your children’s disputes are teachable moments.

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Wood is a child development specialist with degrees in Early Childhood Education, Counseling, and Human Development. Workshops for parents, teachers, and childcare professionals can be found at: drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com

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