…but I did leave it behind his car.

I know of no culture where gift giving is not common, from within ordinary families to the highest echelons of government. In some cases, the giver has the expectation of something in return. Lewis and Clark found this out the hard way when they encountered native Americans on their exploration of the American West. The indigenous people expected gifts in return for those given. For the natives, it was a common courtesy, and for the Europeans, it was quite unexpected. Their lack of understanding offended. Subsequent to that, somehow “Indian giver” became a term used to describe a person who asked for the return of a gift given, but perhaps a better term would have been “white man giver”.

Whether given without expectation of a return or not, it is understood that a gift, once given, becomes the property of the receiver. To ask for a return of the gift is unthinkable in our adult society, yet the schoolyard taunt “Indian giver” was not uncommon when I was in school. Even among children, the asking for the return of a gift was considered bad manners.

There is apparently an exception to the above unspoken rule that a gift fully becomes the property of the receiver. Consider a gift from a parent to a child. If little Johnny leaves his bike in the driveway, it may be taken away for a period of time. If Susie throws a tantrum and breaks mom’s favorite vase, her I-Pod may be locked away for a few weeks.

On the face of it, this would seem to be a reasonable way to teach the lesson of responsibility. However, in most societies, property ownership is one of the earliest lessons taught, starting even with infants. Gifts received are a unique form of ownership as they normally have no conditions attached. Much of what we say we “own” is actually partially owned by us, but also by the bank or a loan company. Even our house, when the mortgage is fully paid, will accrue property taxes every year, we are still conditional owners.

When a child owns something, would it be be a better lesson in responsibility to let a bike get stolen or damaged than to take it away? He could still own the bike, but could payfor a replacement or repairs of damage that may occur? An extra chore could be assessed for leaving it in the driveway, where it was subject to damage or loss. Susie could pay for the vase somehow, and assigned to do extra chores as penance for the tantrum.

If we want a child to possess something that we are unwilling to forfeit our right to control, it should be loaned conditionally, and explain to make it clear. The parent could enforce conditions. It may seem a fine point, but a child should understand after a few incidents the difference between his property and that which is not, and consequences. It should also be made clear that gifts are his to do as he will with them. Once the child show he can be fully responsible and take care of possessions, ownership could be transferred.

These could be valuable life lessons when later, as an adult, they are handling the responsibility between the limits of ownership, rentals and loans. Gifts would be understood to be ownership by the receiver without conditions attached.

Daddy, can I borrow the car?

Jerry Society & Culture

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