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Positive Discipline And The Trader Principle

Posted Jan 26 2009 5:03pm
Positive Discipline techniques are excellent for teaching and reinforcing what Objectivists know as The Trader Principle:

A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. He does not treat men as masters or slaves, but as independent equals. He deals with men by means of a free, voluntary, unforced, uncoerced exchange—an exchange which benefits both parties by their own independent judgment.

Ayn Rand, "The Objectivist Ethics, The Virtue of Selfishness



In other words, The Trader Principle is a way of dealing justly with other people, recognizing their right to their life (and therefore, body, property, ideas, decisions) and expecting--and hopefully receiving--the same in return.

Obviously, children are going to need help learning some ways to deal with other people--negotiation tactics, interpersonal skills--and some of the ideas I've learned from the PD literature offer excellent ways to do so in a manner that is also just and respectful.

Sharing and Taking Turns

One way we use PD to reinforce the Trader Principle concerns Sharing, that bane of toddlers and preschoolers (oh, okay--even grownups) since the dawn of time. It's hard to let something interesting go into the hands of another. It's even harder to be told that it's better (as in, morally right) to give that something up to someone else rather than to play with it yourself. Of course, I disagree with that altruistic idea.

But I also think that learning to share and take turns is generally a good idea--because ultimately, you'll have to do that quite a bit as a grownup if you choose to live with and/or near other people. I take turns with Brendan all the time--we take turns driving the cars or reading books or picking out which movie to watch next. We share lots of things, too--yummy food at a restaurant (or home!), our money, things for the house. Sharing and taking turns happens outside the home, too: waiting for your turn to check out at the grocery store, sharing the road with other cars, etc. (I'll leave government-required "sharing" out of this post, for what I hope are obvious reasons.)

PD proponents recognize that sharing and taking turns are not easy for a child, and that they need help from adults to learn to do these things, and how to do them in a kind and gracious way. The attitude of my parents and many parents I see seems to be: children need to learn to share, and be forced to share and sometimes be made to feel guilty when they don't do it (or do so graciously). PD techniques help the adult acknowledge the child's (often) negative feelings associated with sharing/taking turns while being respectful of the child's individuality, property rights, and need for independence. There is also a focus on negotiation techniques that are pretty darn useful in other areas, too. And now of course it's . . .

Example Time!


Take the all-too-typical situation of: somebody wants a toy that somebody else is playing with.

Some OS ways to handle it (mostly directed at the kid who has the toy):

  • "Give her the toy. She's younger/sad/other Mom-determined reason."
  • "You really need to learn to share." (I remember this one from my own childhood.)
  • "You don't really want that toy anymore."
  • "You have to share or you'll be punished."
  • "What's the big deal? It's just a truck. You have thousands of trucks." (to one or both kids)
  • "Why are you crying?" (to one or both kids)
  • Mom takes toy away and gives it to the other kid.
  • Mom sets the kitchen timer for 5 minutes without input from either kid.

Some PD ways to handle it:

With the kid who wants the toy:

  • "You'd like a turn. Can you ask for a turn in a polite way?"
  • "Do you need my help asking for a turn?"
  • "It's hard to wait for a turn sometimes. I know just how that feels."
  • "Your turn will be in 3 minutes [after negotiations have occurred]. What would you like to do while you wait?"

With the kid who already has the toy:

  • "Morgan would like a turn with that toy. How much longer do you need for your turn?"
  • "I know it's a special toy."
  • "When we have friends over, we let them play with our toys--they let us play with their toys when we visit them."
  • "Ryan asked politely for a turn. What can you say back to him?"
  • "It's hard to let someone else take a turn with a toy you're interested in."
  • "Will you let us know when you're done with that toy so that Morgan can have a turn?"

There are many differences in the styles, of course. One of the things I like about the PD method is that it places the onus for getting the problem solved on the children--with Mom there to walk them through the steps, help them find appropriate words and offer sympathy. There is no arbitrary Mom-imposed time limit or other determination from someone else that the turn is over. I have an idea for a future post about how we handle negotiating (between children, and between the adult and child). For now, I'll just say that I have no interest in being Judge, Jury, and Executioner. (Although I still often fall back into this bad habit.) In the long run, they'll have negotiation skills from practicing these techniques and will not become second-handed about letting someone else determine how problems are solved.

The Trader Principle

The other terrific thing about this PD method for handling sharing issues is that it reinforces the Trader Principle! Of course, negotiation skills are part of teaching the Trader Principle--rational adults don't just snatch things out of the hands of others. They discuss the terms of their deal and do it respectfully until an agreement that each can live with is reached. They know that each has a right to his property and approaches trading situations (like sharing and taking turns) with that in mind.

I don't muscle my way past little old ladies at the check out lane. I recognize that others have a rightful spot ahead of me in line and respect their right to that spot. If I only have a few items, I might ask the person to trade spots with me. If she refused, then I'd just have to wait some more. I don't demand that my neighbor lend me her garden rake. I know that it's hers, and if I would like to borrow it, then I think of a polite way to ask her. She is free to say no, of course.

We respect the right of the child to decide what happens to his property, which extends to his right to play with our general toy stockpile. Generally, our toys ARE for sharing--meaning that any child who wants to play with a toy gets a turn. But we don't set arbitrary limits on the length of turns. So if you want to play with a toy, your turn lasts as long as you want. (My understanding is that this is how it works in a Montessori classroom, too, although correct me if I'm wrong about this.) Also, you must take reasonable care of the toy, protecting it from damage. Accidents do happen, but that's a different context, of course.

However, if you know that someone else is waiting for a turn with a particular thing, then there is a problem that needs to be worked out. Conversely, if you'd like a turn with something, then rudely demanding or grabbing the toy is not appropriate. There is a problem that can be named (often by Mom): Two children want to play with the same toy right now. Time for both children to work on solutions for the problem. Working with the other person to find a solution to the problem is what's expected.

This is how adults deal with each other, too. If I need the phone and Brendan is on it, I might ask him "How much longer are you going to be?" He, knowing that I'm waiting, might hurry up his conversation. Or he might say "It's a work call and I'm going to be a while." We might think that a Fight to the Death (or to the Pain) over ONE LEGO is ridiculous--and we might be right. But it's enough to recognize that it's important to THEM, and embrace this excellent opportunity to help the kids learn how to work with each other according to the Trader Principle. Because one day, they might want to borrow something from someone else. :o)

There is an exception to our general toy rule: Special Toys. Some things are too special to share--for sentimental reasons (like loveys), or because they are unique, or because you bought them with your own money. Actually, the child needn't have a "good" reason (by my standards) for declaring a toy "Special." It's enough for me to know that for whatever reason, This Toy is Special (Today). Special Toys do not have to be shared ever. We use the strategy of taking Special Toys up to their rooms before having guests over, lest our guest--innocently unaware of the Specialness--accidentally provoke an international incident by touching them. Also, it's no fair to confer Specialness upon a toy that someone else has been playing with for a while, just because you're not in the mood to share that day. Now, we can't keep all of our Special Toys hidden from siblings, who, alas, must share our house--but they are very good about respecting each other's Special Toys--because they know that their Special Toys are also respected.

Again--adults have special things that are not for sharing, too. My treasured dragon collection--not for sharing. Brendan's insulin needles--only for him. I have a Mommy Flashlight that I don't share, because I got tired of never being able to find a flashlight. So I bought my own, told everyone it was Too Special for me to share, and they respect that (usually).

Consequences

But are there any consequences to not sharing? Of course! We do not punish or make the kid feel guilty about not sharing a toy or being rude about letting another have a turn. But I will point out the consequences of his actions, if I think it might be appropriate. Or I might let him experience the consequences directly.

The consequence is this: If you never share or let anyone have a turn; or if you're a jerk about it; or if you don't take proper care of somebody else's things, then nobody will want to share with you. The Trader Principle again.

If I DEMAND my neighbor lend me her rake, she might say no simply because of my demeanor, even if she had been previously inclined to let me borrow it. If I help myself to her rake without asking, she might be angry and keep her garage locked. If I don't take care of her rake while I'm using it, she might be hesitant to lend me something else.

So I explain to my kids:

  • "If you'd like to play with her toys when you're at her house, you should share your toys with her."
  • "If you break that toy that he's letting you play with, then he might not let you have a turn next time."
  • "You spoke so rudely to her that I'm not sure she's going to want to share that with you. Can you think of a way to ask that will make her WANT to share?

Sometimes they make good decisions when I point this stuff out to them; other times, they don't. But experiencing the good and bad results of those decisions gives them knowledge in a way I simply can't if I always step in and solve the problem for them.

That's all I have about the Trader Principle for now. I'm interested in your thoughts and how you handle such issues. I'm always looking for new ideas!
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