Rebirth of Reason


Teaching to Share
by Joseph Rowlands

One of the things that parents often do is force their children to share their toys with other children. Sometimes it is their own children, and sometime other people's children. There are many excuses given for it. One couple points out that the older child hasn't played with those toys in months or years, and is only refusing to share out of jealousy or the like. Others do it to try to encourage their children to get along with others and be kind.


I recently saw some self-described Objectivist parents doing the same thing, and it struck me as bizarre. I had expected a very different approach to child-rearing. The whole idea strikes me as altruistic. There is no appeal to the self-interest of the child who is asked to share. Instead, it is the interest of the other child and the moral duty to share that are invoked.


There are a lot of problems with forcing a kid to share. The first, and most obvious, is that the child will resent having to. If you're trying to teach a kid that sharing is a good thing, force is a way to promote the opposite message. He may have to give his toys, but he won't like it and he won't like the person getting it. Instead of promoting a harmony of interests between the kids, the use of force destroys it.


It also teaches the child who gets to borrow the toy a lesson. He doesn't have to earn the toy. He doesn't have to trade, or play nice, or provide value for value. All he has to do is go to the grownups and say that little Bobby isn't sharing. Perhaps he's not sharing for a good reason. Perhaps he's not sharing because the other kid isn't respectful of the property and is likely to damage it. It doesn't matter. When sharing is promoted as a virtue, and one that can be forced, the recipient can use that as a weapon and make demands. He is taught that if he wants something, he just needs to find someone big enough to force it out of another.


When you use force to make a child share, you aren't teaching him that sharing is in his rational self-interest. You are teaching him the opposite. You are forcing him to share with out any compensation. He loses, and he sees sharing from the perspective of sacrifice, instead of as a means of gaining value.


Presumably the point of teaching a kid to share is that he will grow up to be the kind of person who is generous and who shares willingly. But force doesn't teach that less, except maybe that it is a duty. If you wanted an adult to share, you would appeal to his self-interest. You would show the benefits of sharing, and the problems that arise from not sharing. So why teach a child in a way that stymies self-interest and upholds sharing as a moral duty, a sacrifice he should be willing to do on his own?


Kids learn to share pretty easily. If I want to play with your toy, I try to trade you something you'll like. When I first started school, our Kindergarten had lots of toys to play with, and I believe the rule was first come first serve. So if another kid got the cool toy, it was his until he was done. If you wanted to try it, you had to appeal to his interests. You had to offer something that he would want. It didn't always work, but the approach was easy enough. And if he didn't share, you could hold that against him and not share your toys with him at some later date. Even kids of that age know how to hold grudges!


For sharing to be beneficial, it must be in the form of trade. Maybe the trade is that the other kid will share his toys with you. Maybe the trade is that he will play with the toys with you, and so you can have a better experience. Or maybe you can share as a kind of gift, in which case you can get appreciation in return. These are all good reasons to share. But note that all of these have a condition!


In order to benefit from sharing, you must have the right to not share. This is property rights, and if you don't have property rights, you can't expect to benefit from sharing. Why should another child share his toys with you if he can just have your parents force you to share? Why should he play by your rules when he can demand you share regardless? Why should he appreciate that you are sharing with him when it isn't your choice at all? Without the right to refuse to share, you can't expect the benefits of sharing.


That makes the choice pretty clear. You can try to teach your children that sharing is in their interests and that they should do it because it benefits them when they do, or you can force them to share and teach them that sharing is a sacrificial act done for the sake of "being good".


The idea of property rights among children is an idea that even many libertarians and Objectivists treat with contempt. They think of property rights as something that is useful between adults, but when it comes to children, communal property and forced sharing is seen as ideals. But why would this be the case?


Property rights is not some horrible set of rules that we are forced to live with as adults. Instead, property rights are empowering. They give us control of our lives, and they reduce conflicts. When we all know that this is my property and that is your property, there's no need to fight over it. When ownership is clear, conflicts are reduced. When ownership is vague, like who gets to decide what show to watch on the family TV, conflicts abound! The idea that communal property is more loving and peaceful is completely wrong. It is a source of constant fighting as each person attempts to gain at the expense of everyone else. Why would this be an appropriate model for family life?


Property rights settle those conflicts. To the extent that property is private and control is clearly determined, conflicts go away. If I own the television and you want to watch it, you have to appeal to my generosity or trade value for value! But if you can just go get someone else to force me to do as you say, it leads to conflicts, resentment, and a disharmony of interest.


You might think that property rights is too complicated for young children to grasp. I don't agree. Property is not a difficult concept. It spells out boundaries of appropriate actions. Kids deal with boundaries all the time. Yes, they like to test them, and are happy to ignore them if they can, but the concept isn't difficult.


Young kids might not see the benefits of sharing. They may also not be good negotiators with older siblings. But that should be okay. What's more important? That they learn valuable lessons in the right way, or that they perform the acts no matter how grudgingly? If your kid doesn't want to share, that should be his right. If you want to teach him the value of sharing, then make it obviously worth his while!


The point isn't to promote property rights as some kind of attempt at moral purity. You don't need to force your kids to pay for rent or dinner or such nonsense. You don't have to let your child give away his clothes and furniture for candy. You can be sensible. Property rights aren't just some kind of moral ideology that you should be willing to sacrifice for to prove your moral commitment. If you see the alternative as some radical form of property rights that leads to sacrifice and self-destruction on one hand, and an absence of property rights on the other, you are accepting a moral/practical dichotomy where there is none.


Property rights are not just moral. They are practical. They create boundaries of consent that allow trade for mutual advantage. They reduce conflicts and clarify what actions are appropriate. They allow each person control over his own life, and require others to seek consent before intruding. They require interactions to have mutual consent. And because of this, they bring out the best in people.

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