All Commentary
Wednesday, September 1, 1971

Ownership, Responsibility, and the Child


Dr. North recently completed graduate studies at the University of California, Riverside, and currently serves as Director of Seminars at the Foundation for Economic Education.

Defenders of the free enterprise system may be rare, but there are a lot more of them than of those who practice freedom. There are always more entrepreneurs around than free enterprise advocates, but I am not talking about entrepre­neurs. I am talking about the de­pressingly short supply of free enterprise defenders who make micro-economic decisions in terms of a philosophy of open competi­tion on a price-oriented market. The temptation of temporary eco­nomic advantage lures capitalist after capitalist into the arms of the statist regulating agencies. The micro-economic decisions at the level of the individual and the firm are the crucial ones, and it is precisely here that the war against statism is being lost.

Yet, if the firm seems to be an area of retreat, the family is a philosophical disaster area. Men and women who are personally committed to the idea of the moral superiority of the voluntary mar­ket and private ownership seem incapable of grasping the parental role of imparting their faith to their children. The family is the training ground for children in every sphere of their young lives. Why should the concept of private ownership and personal responsi­bility be deferred until the child reaches his teens? If the first eight years are the crucial ones in the development of the child’s per­ception of things, the establish­ment of his habits, the beginning of his intellectual tools, and the channeling of his emotions, then why are these years so ignored by parents as a time of training in the ideas of property?

Is there any concept that a child learns more rapidly than the con­cept of “mine”? I know virtually nothing of Soviet education at the preschool level, but I am cer­tain that “correcting” this concept gives the teachers at the child day-care centers their most diffi­cult intellectual problem. Unfortu­nately, the child does not seem to learn the equally important con­cept of “yours” with anything like the same facility. It would seem to be a moral problem with the child, not an intellectual one. That is why the authority of the parent is so vital in getting the child to acknowledge the validity of both of these interlocked concepts.

Children learn at astonishing rates of speed. All parents take pride in this fact, yet not one parent in a hundred really seems to understand just how fast his child does learn. The ability of a child to understand and act in terms of the most subtle human nuances—the look, the change of voice, a parent’s weariness—is so great that it puts to shame whole teams of social psychologists and their computer cards. Children are connivers; they are seldom stupid. At times they seem to affect stu­pidity in order to better expedite their conniving. Parents who fail to see the signs of an infant’s con job only confirm the child in any lack of respect he may have for the family. Children see and they remember differences between stated principles and demon­strated action. That is a child’s means of survival, and he learns it very well and very early.

Parents for centuries have used the phrase, “Do as I say and not as I do,” as a cover for their own moral weaknesses. A child may do just as his parent says, but in all likelihood he is thinking something very different. The mind of the child must be challenged by some­thing more than brute force as he grows older; the sooner his mind is challenged, the better. Force, used to conquer a child’s rebellious will, does not guarantee anything about the state of the child’s thoughts. Yet, in the long run, the parent’s real battle is for the mind of his child; and there are innu­merable competing institutions that are in the business of intel­lectual conversion. The competi­tion begins the day the child goes to school.

The Responsibility of Ownership

If the concept of private prop­erty is worth defending, and if personal responsibility is the mo­ral basis of private property, then the family must be the scene of the child’s introduction to the re­sponsibilities of ownership. Sadly, most parents have been so utterly compromised—morally compro­mised—by the collectivistic con­cept of “the well-integrated child” that they fail to take advantage of a marvelous opportunity to teach their children the meaning of re­sponsible ownership. These same parents are later shocked to dis­cover that their teenager has abandoned “bourgeois concepts of property and morality.” The child drops out of his tax-supported uni­versity, joins a commune, and openly defies the parent to stop him. Of course he has no respect for such bourgeois concepts; he was never expected to adopt them! The family structure that pro­duced him never rewarded him in terms of those concepts. He might have been expected to do well individually outside the family —in school, in athletics, and so forth—but not inside the family.

Take, for example, the idea of “sharing.” All well-integrated chil­dren share their toys with their brothers and sisters and with all the other boys and girls they play with. “Let Billy play with your airplane, sweetheart.” Now “sweetheart” may know very well that Billy is a semiprofessional demolitionist, but he is supposed to let Billy play with his airplane, whether or not it took him a week to build it. Or maybe “sweetheart” is just another Ebenezer Scrooge. It really does not matter one way or the other. If Mama enforces her request that Billy be allowed to play with the airplane, she has begun to undercut the idea of ownership in the mind of her child. A request is one thing; en­forcement is another. The child should be given the right to ig­nore the request without physical reprisal from his mother or Billy.

The Child’s Decision

The parent can always give a whole barrage of cogent reasons why sharing is preferable to stinginess: people do not like sel­fish people, people will not share their toys with selfish people (which is, I think, the really ef­fective argument), selfish people are mean, selfish people become social outcasts. Yet, the child is simultaneously informed that it is impossible to buy people’s friend­ship. It is up to him to balance these competing propositions in his own mind. (If the parent thinks this is a tough knot to untie, wait until he tries to ex­plain that God’s favor cannot be purchased, but that faith without works is dead.) In any case, the decision ought to be the child’s. If there are social costs associated with being selfish, let the child find out for himself, and let him evaluate them in terms of his own psychic needs. Maybe he likes toys better than friends. Maybe he will grow up to be like Howard Hughes. But it will have been his option, and he will have borne the costs. That is what the free soci­ety is all about. It cannot guaran­tee that everyone will grow up liked (or even well-liked, as Willie Loman saw life’s goal), but it can see to it that everyone pays his own share.

Group Relationships

Children are not stupid concern­ing group relationships. They un­derstand why and how their peers operate. They have a larger stake in this kind of understanding than their parents could have; parental memories grow increasingly dim with age, and parents often have many other things to worry about. A child’s concentration is focused. He learns to predict how his ac­tions will be received. He may not act in terms of what he knows, but he is continually learning. If he thinks that he ought to share with others, he will. He can test his parents’ remarks about the benefits of sharing. If he likes the results, fine; if not, he bears the costs. It is a very good, and from the parent’s point of view, very inexpensive form of training.

If the parent continually inter­feres with the right of the childto do what he wants with his own property, he is setting up the child for every kind of collectivist pan­acea. He will learn that titles to property are less valid than the ability to manipulate the authori­ties to your own purposes. He will learn that the authorities cannot be trusted to fulfil their promises with respect to ownership. He will learn that “yours” really is not that fundamental a concept, since “mine” is not enforced either. He will learn very early of the reali­ties of what Ayn Rand has called “the economy of pull.”

In Matters of Property

If a child is not taught the meaning of personal responsibility from the beginning, the family has failed in part of its function. That is why enforced sharing is so insidious. It destroys the links between ownership, power, and responsibility. The parent who makes his child share anything with anyone for any reason (other than disciplinary action for an infraction against another child’s right of ownership) is courting long-run rebellion. He can sug­gest; he dare not enforce.

It should come as no surprise that violation of the rights of property by a parent brings with it an immediate punishment. I have seen parents spend whole evenings trying to straighten out what can only be described as property disputes among children. Hours and hours of listening to “Johnny took my fire engine,” and “Bobby took my Baby Jane Throw-up Doll,” and “Well, she won’t give me back my Franken­stein monster.” It must drive them crazy, as it does me; but I can go home later on. Kids are manipulaters by trade, as all peo­ple without power have to be; if the parent sets himself up as the allocator of children’s scarce re­sources, he can expect to spend a lot of time at that task.

Children can disrupt the family for so many reasons. They hit each other, tease each other, knock each other down stairs, compete for parental affection. That is what they do collectively; indi­vidually they can be equally try­ing on a parent. “When they’re quiet, I worry,” is a universal sentiment among mothers. So when the property issue is added to the long list of parental har­rassment devices, it ought to be shut off from the start. Each child must learn very early that the rights of his brothers must be respected, and that when the par­ent learns of an infraction, pun­ishment follows with the regu­larity of a machine. Not that the parent comes in and settles the dispute in a friendly way, but that he comes in and settles it by swift justice. If the parent is only a friendly mediator, he will be a harassed mediator; no kid will cooperate with his brother when he thinks the authorities will only restore the status quo ante. He has nothing to lose and the toy to gain, and his brother knows it. But if he knows that the minute the story of his infraction gets to the parent, he will be punished, he may begin to see the advantages of self-discipline. He may begin to mature. (If states would see the truth of this with respect to medi­ating labor-management disputes, there would be fewer strikes and fewer non-negotiable demands —i.e., there would be more industrial maturity.)

Watch the Vigilante

There is one justification that is used by children for every kind of deviation: “He wouldn’t give my toy to me, so I….” A parent who stands ready to enforce the right of property in his household will not have to listen to that one; he can punish both the thief (for that is what he is) and the vigi­lante who retaliated. He can en­courage victims to come to him because they can trust him to up­hold them in their arguments. We expect that much as adults from the civil authorities; we should provide it in that sphere where we are the officials. We should be able to be trusted, day in and day out, to render justice, whether we are tired, happy, sour, busy. The regularity of justice, the very predictability of it, is more re­spected by the child than any theories that a parent might spin in those rare heart-to-heart talks. It takes self-discipline in an adult to provide this kind of regularity; that is why there is truth to the phrase that delinquent parents are the chief cause of delinquent chil­dren. The lack of self-discipline becomes a heritage of families throughout several generations.

Buy It Yourself

A judicious use of the weekly allowance should be started as soon as the child can say, “Buy it for me” at the supermarket. He learns what buying means very early. That is why supermarket psychologists set up the candy counters by the check-out stands, and at eye level for tots. They know that few mothers have the moral fiber to say no to a squalling child; at least, they will not do it every time. The best argument to “Get it for me,” is “Shut up or I’ll tan your hide” (if it is meant); the second best answer is “Buy it yourself.” The older the child, the better is the second answer.

One of the appalling things I have witnessed over the years is the sight of parents at church giving their children money to put in the collection plate. They think they are teaching their children to sacrifice for God. They under­rate the child’s intelligence. He knows quite well the difference between “giving” and acting as a financial broker for a parent. If a parent plays this game, the child should be told that he can keep every cent of it to use as he would his other income. Then the child can learn what sacrifice is. If the parents hold to the ancient and respected custom of tithing, then the child should be encouraged to tithe his income. But the only justification for a parent’s requir­ing the child to tithe would be that the elders over the parent have the same institutional option. If he is not institutionally obligated to tithe, then the old rule holds: do as I say and as I do, for they are of one piece. The child should not be forced to tithe. The Bible says that God honors a cheerful giver; that is what the child should be taught to be.

Applying the Principles

The defense of the free market cannot be made simply in terms of charts and graphs and technical explanations of market efficiency by professional economists. It must be defended by a willingness on the part of its supporters to understand its principles and apply them in all the relevant spheres of their personal lives. “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves,” wrote the Apostle James. Indeed; if a parent is not willing to take the time to apply the principles that he professes to hold most dear within the con­fines of the institution that he holds most dear, he is not serious about his commitment to those principles. If parents use the fam­ily as a zone of safety from the responsibility of laboring to apply basic moral principles, then they should be ready to see their chil­dren on television during the mass arrests at the local university. If the principles of private owner­ship and personal responsibility are not worth teaching by word and example to one’s children, they are not worth teaching at all.


  • Dr. North is president of The Institute for Christian Economics in Tyler, Texas. He was FEE’s director of seminars in the early 1970s and has served as a member of the board of trustees.