Parents don’t teach their children the word for “mine”; they learn it all on their own. Parents also don’t teach their two-year-olds the following rules of “mine”:
- if I like it, it’s mine;
- if I see it, it’s mine;
- if it’s in my hand, it’s mine;
- if it looks like mine, it’s mine;
- if I can take it from you, it’s mine; and
- if I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
Yet, no parent in any age or community lets these untaught rules of “mine” stand unchecked. Every generation of parents teaches their children the rules of how not to acquire something. In the modern world we create television programs to assist with the uptake. We use such lessons to teach children when they can say, “This is mine,” and reciprocally, when someone else can say, “This is mine”—that is, when the child must say “That is yours.”
An episode of the British animated children’s show Bing illustrates how parents teach the general rules about what “This is mine” means. The eponymous Bing is a preschool bunny who learns how the world works from his guardian-babysitter, Flop. In the episode entitled “Not Yours,” Bing and Flop visit Padget’s corner shop to purchase groceries and a treat for dinner (carrot muffins, naturally). While Flop pays for the groceries, Bing wanders around the store and discovers a box of lollipops on the far wall. Lured by its sweetness, he picks one up, opens it, and takes a lick. When Flop calls Bing to leave, he discreetly slips the treasure into his pocket. Notice what the cartoon teaches in a simple fifty-second conversation when Bing takes out the lollipop and begins licking it on their way home:
Flop: Oh, what have you got there, Bing?
Bing: Mmm. A lollipop. It’s strawberry.
Flop: Where did you get that from?
Bing: It’s mine. I found it in the shop.
Flop: Ah, and did we pay for the lollipop?
Bing: Uh, no.
Flop: Oh, well… if we didn’t pay for it, I’m afraid it must still belong to Padget.
Bing: Oh, can we keep it?
Flop: Well no, Bing, it’s not yours.
Bing: Why not?
Flop: Well, if you take something without paying for it, that’s not right, is it? It’s called stealing.
Notice how naturally the show’s writers assume a child will claim a thing first-in-hand. Preschool viewers identify with Bing, and no one teaches them to claim things they find as “Mine!” They do that all on their own. What preschoolers need to be taught is that “finders, keepers” does not apply to things inside a grocery store. The lessons to be learned are that things like lollipops generally belong to someone else and that taking something because “I want it” is not that same thing as being able to say, “It’s mine.” We teach the lessons of mine via “not yours.”
“Property isn’t unilateral. It requires reciprocal relationships.”
A claim of “This is mine!” is not the end of property. If it were, then property would be as purely subjective as “I want this” is. Rather, property requires that people other than me also know the circumstances of when my claim of “Mine!” is indeed true. The singularity of property is evident. Only I can use the concept of “mine” to assert a first-person claim on something. If I can say about something, “This is mine,” then other people cannot say “This is mine” about the very same thing. Moreover, I can even say things like “Do not trespass” or “Leave it alone.” But what is less evident is that when I say things like that, I am relying on everyone else to use the concept of “yours” to respect my claim of “This is mine!” I am relying on them to say, “That is yours.”
Mine and thine are intertwined. If I want other people to say “That is yours” to me, and they are, in every respect, as good as me, then equality dictates that I must respect their claims of “This is mine” about other things. Property isn’t unilateral. It requires reciprocal relationships. Property requires me to respect other people’s claims of “This is mine” as much as it requires them to respect my claims of “This is mine!”.
Featured image: Calvin Hanson via Unsplash