Ownership in children’s justifications. Friedman and Nancekivell

Nancekivell, S. E., Van de Vondervoort, J. W., & Friedman, O. (2013). Young Children’s Understanding of Ownership. Child Development Perspectives, 7(4), 243–247.

This study uses a very simple experimental design to explore how children (ages 3 through 5) use ownership in their explanations about why it is acceptable or unacceptable for a person to use an object. They do three experiments.

In the first two experiments, ownership is not mentioned to children, and researchers test whether children bring up ownership spontaneously in their explanations.

In Experiment 1, researchers focused on the “right of use”, that is, whether it is acceptable for a certain character to use a certain object.

Experiment 2 is similar to experiment 1, but it focuses on the “right of exclusion” (someone shouldn’t use something because it belongs to someone else).

Experiment 3 provides children with explicit information about ownership before asking about acceptability and unacceptability of use.

The conclusions are that, as children grow older, they become more likely to use ownership to explain why it acceptable or unacceptable to use an object. 3-year-olds rarely referenced ownership, while 5-year-olds referenced ownership in almost half of their explanations. 5-year-olds gave ownership explanations more than any other particular kind of explanation (and this is not the case in younger children).

4- and 5-year-olds gave ownership explanations at similar rates regardless of whether ownership was mentioned. However, whether ownership was mentioned (experiment 3) did influence 3-year-olds: When 3-year-old explained why it was unacceptable to use an object, they referenced ownership more often when it was mentioned than when it was not mentioned. 3-year-olds gave more ownership explanations in the unacceptability-of-use condition.

We should emphasize that it all hangs in the narrative context. Children might reference ownership more if asked about why a person is allowed to modify an object; but they might reference ownership less if asked about gender typed objects or objects that are potentially dangerous, as other explanatory factors might be more compelling for such items (i.e., gender norms; safety concerns).

I’m interested in this topic because I think that ownership plays an important role in the development of reasoning. Rather thank considering reasoning as a cognitive, cold faculty that is applied to the domain of ownership, I believe that reasoning develops in the context of the rhetorical fight for object possession (competition, sharing, adjudication of ownership, etc.) Children feel authorized to give permission, forbid, and reason about objects in general in so far as they can appropriate those objects and feel that they are their own. The fact that ownership appears spontaneously in children’s reasoning is therefore relevant for my research interests.


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