A and I were having a delightful time playing at a favourite local playground (the images show the view from this park, albeit last Autumn). We were approached by another little girl, who turned out to be a three year old called E. Little E was delightful: friendly, confident, inquisitive, communicative, sensitive, respectful - in short the very model of what I would hope A is like at that age. Being slightly older, she was able to initiate and demonstrate many of the fundamental skills required for building a friendship. A was quickly besotted and having a great time gladly sharing her toys with her new buddy. E would occasionally run back to her mother to get another biscuit while A was eating some grapes out of a container.
E then suggested that she and A might go for a walk to play in another part of the playground. There followed a brief negotiation where E offered to carry some of the items that A often likes to take with her at the moment (a small bag and a tiny basket). A declined and said she'd prefer to hold them herself. E then offered to carry A's container of grapes in order to facilitate the move. This was gladly accepted and off they went, A only pausing momentarily to turn and wave goodbye to me. I let them go, confident that they would still only be metres away and in sight of perhaps a dozen other parents, while thinking that it might be good for A to have a little space to observe the new relational skills without me looking her shoulder.
Ten seconds later, I heard angry shouting.
It took another couple of moments for me to realise that the shouting was directed at E. Her mother was very loudly berating her for purloining another child's property, telling her to "return the grapes at once" and to apologise for taking them.
I ran to clear up the confusion. E's mother was dragging her by the hand to find the owner of the stolen goods while, unnoticed, A trailed after them looking very confused. E was sobbing loudly and A was on the verge of doing likewise.
I tried to explain as briefly as I could, highlighting just how exemplary E's behaviour had been and that the grapes were freely shared, not pilfered. The mother, realising her mistake, turned to comfort E, though without apologising to her. I tried to help A understand what had happened. When E's mother went off chasing an even younger child moments later, E stayed and was able to articulate that her mother had misunderstood and that her anger was clearly unjustified.
First, it is worth noting that at one level, both E's mother and I were motivated by concern for the other's child. She didn't want A to have had her goods stolen and I didn't want E falsely accused. At a deeper level, we were presumably also both even more concerned about our own child's moral formation. She didn't want to raise a thief. I didn't want my child to think twice about sharing her blessings with others.
So what then differed? Our vision of the world in which these moral concerns were expressed. Now obviously, I was privy to the earlier interaction in which A had freely accepted E's offer to carry the grapes while E's mother was not and so I had a better idea of how to "read" the sight of E carrying food that didn't belong to her. But I wonder whether there might not be more to the difference than this.
The experience lead me to reflect upon our culture's obsession with private property. Why would this mother (who as far as I can tell, was otherwise sane and sensitive) react so explosively to seeing her child holding an unfamiliar object? The outburst may perhaps have had its origins elsewhere: frustration at the younger sibling or at some other unrelated situation which found its unjust expression against E. But the fact that the trigger for this display was an apparent breach of ownership rights concerning a tiny handful of slightly soggy grapes could also suggest that the policing of the concept and practices of exclusive property is very important for E's mother, so important that she would trample all over a nascent friendship to enforce them. Property is an important ethical concept, but it is possible to get a little too excited about it and lose sight of the bigger picture.