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MINE! Young Children and Their Developing Concept of Ownership

MINE! Young Children and Their Developing Concept of Ownership

I put myself through college by being a part-time preschool teacher, shepherding a dozen, or more, 3 and 4-year-olds through early education. This meant brokering countless peace agreements over the usage of everything from watercolor sets to ride-on toys (there simply wasn’t enough for everyone to have their own) and I quickly realized that children are hardwired to fight over “things.” Amplified cries of “Mine!” and “Nooo!” often punctuated the classroom din as an implicit call for adult intervention. It wasn’t until I took the entire class on a fieldtrip to the beach that I witnessed something close to harmony. The children all played together without any conflict for 2 straight hours, largely because there was nothing to fight over. There was only sand, surf, and a few broken shells to claim ownership over. At the time (being somewhat young myself) I thought I had found the solution to all early childhood conflict – give them nothing to claim as their own.

According to a report in Scientific American, young children have an innate notion of what can, and cannot be owned. Children as young as three believe human-made objects are owned but naturally occurring things like pinecones are not. The research, which appeared in the journal Developmental Psychology, revealed that children classified human-made objects as owned 89 percent of the time and naturally occurring objects as owned only 28 percent of the time. Researchers conducted an experiment with 3-year olds asking them to look at pictures of a fork, teddy bear, truck, and other human-made objects. They also looked at pictures of a leaf, shell, or rock. The researchers asked: Does this belong to anyone? Most children said “no.”

So this begs the question that if the majority of children see the natural world as something beyond the realm of ownership, why and when does this change? Is there a distinct difference between a natural object (say a little rock) and a bit of territory (a bigger rock)? And there is a difference between “owned” and “claimed” in this territory, as any parent will attest to after watching children fight over found sticks. Does this research reveal anything about developing human nature and our need for ownership? Or is it just showcasing the obvious?

Read more: Blogs, Caregiving, Children, Family, Love, Nature, Parenting at the Crossroads, Peace, Relationships, Teens, , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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1:47PM PST on Feb 1, 2013

The foundation is called parenting, something that seems to be limited today. I was taught by my parents that I do not own nature, I don't own living beings. I own things I work and pay for with my own responsible self. Little kids want for themselves because it is how they are wired early, socialization and personal responsibility is part of what children learn to become responsible adults. It is the responsibility of parenting to teach.....

8:23PM PST on Jan 29, 2013

Hmmm... an innate dislike of sharing resources. Shouts of MINE, MINE, MINE!!!! and NO, NO, NO,!!!! They sound like little Republicans.

2:43AM PST on Jan 29, 2013

very, very interesting, provokes thoughts!

4:44AM PST on Dec 4, 2012


8:11PM PDT on Oct 20, 2011

well what are kids supposed to think when adults are screaming MINE over every piece of land, drop of water, or animal that breathes.

11:03AM PDT on Oct 20, 2011

Interesting article. I think the kids have it right. Leave the trees, rocks, soil, wild animals etc alone, they are not yours to destroy.

9:11PM PDT on Oct 16, 2011

This is definitely an I-me-me-I generation, well taught as the single most important development project on the planet. Don't know when sharing was replaced with mine, but another generation or two on top of this mindset will continue ownership by the 1%.

4:48AM PDT on Oct 15, 2011


2:01AM PDT on Oct 15, 2011

Thanks for the article.

4:24PM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

but if the kid uses a rock or leaf as a tool, or think it is a cool rock.

I take home rocks, I leave them in the house or potted plants. then my mom winds up thought my rocks out(in the trash) who puts rocks in the trash? why not "free" them outside?

but some rocks can be cool or a tool. or painted on.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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