Ritualized exchanges at three years of age

My son L. is taking a bath. He’s 3 years – 1 month. After playing around in the water for a while, he says “I’m a fish”. Then looks at me and says: “I am a penguin.” I reply: “Hello, penguin”. He: “Nice to meet you”. Then he adds: “I pay” (extends his hand as if giving me money). I extend my hand and say: “Here is your change.” Then he says: “Here’s a gift” (and again extends his hand). So I say, “Oh, what is it?” He answers: “A perfume”. He then gives me several more presents, sometimes saying that the gift is “a perfume”, and at other times saying it’s “a surprise”.

I find this sequence very interesting. Our interaction comprises a continuous series of conventional behaviors that are typically used to start social exchanges and to keep them alive. So we go from “greetings” to “payment,” and then to “gift-giving”. Children, of course, do not understand payments as a way to deliver a certain amount of monetary value in the context of a sale or some other economic contract. Rather, they ​see payment as a ritualized exchange, in that sense similar to gift-giving or greeting rituals (as we know from the research in the area of children’s economic notions, such as Berti and Bombi’s, Delval’s, Jahoda’s and Danziger’s among many others). All the actions performed by Leon are instances of ritual exchanges, realized with a purely associative purpose, that is: he interacts in order to keep me engaged in interaction.

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