My Kids Exploit a Free-Market Toy-Sharing Economy and I Love It

These children, mostly elementary age, without any kind of outside interference or guidance, have created a functional, free-market economy.

Like almost every other working mom in America, I outsource my during-work-hours childcare. My sons’ Montessori school offers after-school care, which I cheerfully take advantage of. While picking up the boys from there recently, one of them enthusiastically began describing the newest toy he had acquired and how and why. The after-school teacher for their group is still a bit new to the job, and I blithely commented to her that the student population at the school has a robust, semi-underground toy-sharing economy.

It struck me, later, that that was likely a very strange thing to hear for most people. Of course, I work and socialize with a lot of people who think about the world in terms of economics, so I didn’t think much of it at the time. But it’s actually a rather beautiful example of spontaneous order, voluntary exchange, and relative value.

Children Are Innately Creative

If you don’t have children or spend much time with them, you may not know that kids are wildly innovative. They simply don’t have the same sense of self-importance that adults do, and as a result, they rarely dismiss the possibility of a solution to their perceived problems because it’s silly or “beneath” them. This gives them the freedom to explore all manner of possibilities. One of my sons (Thing 2) is determined to invent a Star Trek-style transporter so I don’t have to spend so much time in the car commuting. The other (Thing 1) is determined to give us flying cars. (Obviously, there’s some disagreement between them as to how best to solve transportation issues, but I admire their ambition.)

That said, my kids also really enjoy novelty. Nothing is so interesting as other people’s toys, at their age. Sometimes, this can lead to covetousness and even resentment as other children’s toys are just so much cooler than their own, in their eyes. It’s easy for this kind of thing to become a real disruption and problem, and at basically every traditional school, toys from home are either strictly regulated or outright banned.

What has sprung up among the children and allowed to continue is a self-regulating, barter-based economy for toys.

My sons’ school, thankfully, genuinely adheres to the Montessori philosophy of letting children be children, and they exhibit the kind of benign neglect in this area that allows innovative solutions to emerge. In short, what has sprung up among the children and allowed to continue is a self-regulating, barter-based economy for toys.

Free-Market Montessori

Recently, Thing 1 brought home a model car, a white pickup truck that he could describe in far more detail than I ever could. He explained, very clearly, the conditions under which he would be able to hold onto the truck. He had promised to bring his friend a different model car, a white Ford Mustang, the next day. If he failed to deliver, the truck would revert to its original owner (his friend).

Now, giving up a Mustang in favor of a truck is not a trade that I’d make, but it was good enough for Thing 1. He knows his own mind far better than I do, so who am I to say that his toy-car preferences are wrong? Carry on, son.

I thought back on all the bits and bobs my children had collected and brought home over the last year and a half at that school, and I realized how little I’d had to do with any of it. It was not a source of concern or consternation for me. Indeed, not micromanaging my kids’ toy collection frees up a fair bit of mental bandwidth. I’m for it. And I love that the kids are left alone to manage it themselves.

Near as I can tell, this all works around the honor system when a petitioner comes without a tradable toy in hand—that is, the reputation and social credit of each individual child. If one doesn’t come through on a deal, word gets around, and the other children know to be wary when dealing with the unreliable party (if they choose to deal with them again at all). And, of course, the more the dealers like each other, the sweeter the deal tends to be. Some kids have a reputation of having cool cars to trade, while others deal in cartoon or video game characters. Even books and art are fair game. Temporary exchanges are also negotiated, all without any top-down interference, and each child always has the option to walk away from a deal that doesn’t suit them.

The children are leveraging what they have for what they want in a peaceful, organized, and rather efficient way. Whether or not we adults understand it or would make the same decisions is completely beside the point.

These children, mostly elementary age, without any kind of outside interference or guidance, have created a functional, free-market economy. That it’s not based around banks or currency doesn’t matter. The children are leveraging what they have for what they want in a peaceful, organized, and rather efficient way. Whether or not we adults understand it or would make the same decisions is completely beside the point.

It is astonishing how well things can work when they’re not meddled with. I know of a few politicians who could learn a thing or two from the renegade Montessori toy-trading contingent. “From the mouths of babes,” as the saying goes.