Religion & Liberty Online

Trade as a Solution for Bickering Toddlers

If you’ve raised multiple children, you’ve dealt with sibling bickering, particularly if said children are close in age. With a three-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl, both just 13 months apart, our family has suddenly reached a stage where sibling play can be either wholly endearing or down-right frightening. Alas, just as quickly as human love learns to bubble up and reach out, human sin seeks to stifle and disrupt it. If that’s too heavy for you, “kids will be kids.”

The areas of contention vary, but most of it comes down to that age-old challenge of sharing, or, as others might frame it, the classic economic problem of scarcity. There is only one fire truck, one soccer ball, and one Buzz Lightyear, even when, in reality, there may be two or three or four. If Toddler X wants to play with Toy Z, no matter how many alluring gizmos and gadgets sit idly by, Toddler Y will all of a sudden long for Toy Z as well. Did I mention the Fall of Man?

My wife and I have done our best to teach proper behavior, maintain order, wield discipline accordingly, and love and hug and encourage along the way. When it comes to sharing, it’s no different. We promote generosity, emphasize patience, teach to inquire politely about the prospects of “collaborative consumption,” seize items when peace is rendered impossible, enforce property rights and ownership where fair and applicable, and so on.

Yet, as any parent knows, toddlerhood is characteristically suited to making a mockery of one’s parenting philosophy, whatever it may be. Just when you think you’ve trained your child to sit quietly when silence is appropriate — teaching manners, establishing authority, setting boundaries, padding the circumstances with (sugary) incentives, etc. — junior will kindly decide that he’d rather forget about all that and shout something about lavatories or Dad’s big bald head.

In response to such circumstances, parents innovate, and innovate we have. As keen as we are on the social and spiritual value of learning to share, we have learned there are additional values to be instilled through a different solution: trade.

Having a particular fascination with the beauty of trade, I probably should have thought of it sooner. Far better parents surely have, for the rules are rather simple. If sister has a toy that brother wants, and his polite requests are countered with a polite refusal, as soon as the frustration begins to brim, we will calmly suggest a trade. Pointing to one of sister’s highly valued commodities — her favorite stuffed animal, “Chuckie,” is the routine go-to — we will attempt to prompt a path to peace. But Chuckie is often not enough, and duly embracing the reality of subjective value, brother will often need to gather multiple stuffed animals to close the deal. Eventually, sister will become filled with so much desire to cuddle her “friends” that she will offer up the asset.

All transactions must, of course, be voluntary. If there is no mutual benefit to be found, no value to be created, the deal dies, leading each party to wrestle with the consequences. This, too, we’ve found to be a healthy process, and often far less frustrating for the child than being met with a simple “no!” If the terms are violated, however, and the barbaric human impulse wins the day, we proceed to invade Toddler Utopia with the needed referee governance.

Overall, it has proven quite effective, now reaching a point where trade is routinely used without our knowledge or prompting. It is not uncommon to overhear such transactions taking place multiple times a day, with oddly varied “offers” accumulating in piles around the house. It isn’t the only method by which they’re learning to co-steward their resources, but it’s proven a powerful potion for peace.

Adam Smith

Indeed, as Adam Smith famously argues in the Wealth of Nations, trade has had a significant civilizing effect on humanity, prodding the self to at least appeal to the self-love of someone else. In his latest book, economist Peter Boettke surveys these effects, noting that trade “created incentives for individuals to interact through persuasion via mutual benefit, rather than through zero- or negative-sum games of force or deception,” and that through such collaboration and spontaneous order, trade created not only “more civilized relationships among individuals,” but “more civilized social orders.”

But alas, outside of the occasional peace it brings to our family and whatever forms of social and spiritual capital may be gained in the process (patience, self-control, trust), the broader takeaway is rather limited at the level of a toddler, a stage in life where self-love is excessively amplified. When my kids seek to trade x for y, it is largely driven by the caricatured impulses of blind ole’ economic man. They are creating value through mutually beneficial exchange — hurray! — but as much as their father would prefer to place halos here and there, it is first and foremost about their own happiness and utility.

In turn, a system of free trade serves us well in offering a baseline that manages human depravity and leverages human nature in productive ways. With the right constraints, things are bound to get better and fuller and deeper as humans grow and mature and trade. But such a framework in and by itself, pursued as robotic materialistic calculators, makes for quite the lackluster philosophy of life, not to mention a highly problematic theology of work and service. As economist Jennifer Roback Morse observes in her book, Love and Economics, beginning with a striking discussion of how parents sacrificially relate to their helpless, needy babies, “self-interest, even rational self-interest, is not enough to provide the social glue for the good society.”

The question, then, is to where do we leap from this starting point? Basic trade brings peace, order, cooperation, and collaboration, and these features bring their own hearty benefits, as my wife and I will duly attest. But such benefits are not to be squandered by elevating them as ultimate ends.

Each interaction and act of value creation brings with it an opportunity, a chance to render the position of our hearts further toward service and away from the self. This is a lesson that adults need just as much, if not more, than toddlers. Our work plays a large part in putting food on our tables, but to make dinner possible, we must create value in the life of another. How we approach that activity, either as petty utilitarian toil or earnest sacrificial worship, will impact everything: the way we submit our heart to God and neighbor, the way we order our lives, and in turn, the far-reaching dynamics of the free and virtuous society.

Although some parents may take issue with our occasional divergence from the more typical “sharing” boilerplate, in utilizing trade, we are but leveraging another powerful form of giving and receiving, one that needn’t be cast aside as a road to myopic selfishness, but rather, embraced as a beginning to active and effective service.

[product sku=”1103″]

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.