Protecting the Property of Others
Who hasn’t witnessed two children quarreling over a toy? Oh! How the instinct of ownership is well-rooted in us! It is God who has given it to us, in order that we will seek to acquire and conserve what is necessary for life. Otherwise, who would burden themselves with the care of saving money to buy a house or pay insurance? We would be satisfied with living like nomads.
The instinct of ownership is thus not bad in itself, but our souls are disordered due to the effects of original sin. Instead of contenting ourselves with what is necessary and useful, we are always interested in acquiring more! Let us look at the following examples.
Monica throws a fit: “Adele isn’t letting me play with her doll!”
“Don’t you have your own?” replies Mother. “Why do you want her doll?”
Yes, Monica had her own, but she considered that the property of another was at the disposition of her caprice.
From here, this bad inclination could quickly grow worse in her.
Cecilia Cony, a Brazilian religious who died in the odor of sanctity (1900-1939), recounted in her childhood memories how one of her friends envied her pretty milk glass.
“May I use Cecilia’s glass?” the child asked the maid. Having been refused, she waited for the maid to turn her back so she could bump Cecilia’s arm. The glass fell and broke. The little envious one didn’t stop there: she ran to the maid and exclaimed: “Cecilia was so mad that you didn’t let me use her glass that she threw it on the ground!”
For this, the poor victim was severely punished.
Envy, anger, and lying, which often end by inflicting an unjust punishment…just how far can the disordered love of another’s property lead? How can this be corrected? A good place to start would be to cultivate the care of possessions in children.
At school, everyone knows that Marie is orderly; her desk remains very tidy; the pages of books lent by the teacher are not dog-eared; she doesn’t scribble on the desk…Why? It is because at home, everyone has their own little private domain which is more or less extensive according to their age. The rules are simple: each child is responsible for maintaining it in order (the mother inspects it from time to time); the brothers and sisters must ask the owner their permission if they wish to borrow something.
As the child grows, the range of objects for which they have access extends. Many things are “theirs” without belonging to them, at least in their own right. Let us profit from daily incidents (which are inevitable!) in order to inculcate the sense of justice to our children. To break a glass by accident while setting the table at home is a small mistake, which often doesn’t need to be punished. It would be a shame if the fear of breaking something would paralyze the child from being helpful. On one hand, what belongs to the whole family is not “the property of others.” On the other hand, what the school gives the students to use does not belong to them!
Then there are the damages done to what belongs to those outside of our own home. Peter, while playing ball, broke the neighbor’s window. This person, a lady with a heart of gold, forgave him completely when he came to apologize. However, Peter’s mother insisted: “He must reimburse you! If he goes unpunished this time, what will happen later when he has his driver’s license?”
If the damage is expensive, it is up to the parents to judge what restitution will be sufficient in order to inculcate the child with the proper sense of justice, but without giving him an impression of injustice because the punishment was too severe. The lesson will bring lasting fruit if it teaches that the property of others ought to be respected and not only that the window I broke “cost so much.”
As the child grows, let us be watchful over his use of the computer. It has become easy to be unjust towards our neighbor without even realizing it!
Thomas, a 15 year-old, has lent a CD to his friend who loved the pieces of music on it. In no time at all, the CD was in the computer and its contents burned onto another CD. “What about the rights of the author?” exclaimed the father of Thomas when he found out. “This CD is worth $15. It is the same as if you stole it off the shelf of the store.” And with a firm hand, his father broke the CD and threw it into the garbage.
What about borrowed property? If Rose asked a friend to lend her a pretty jacket for a wedding, is it legitimate for Rose to keep it once the occasion has passed? Doesn’t her friend remain the owner of the jacket? It is necessary to return it to her as soon as possible, or else one risks stealing in an “honest” manner. Let us also make sure to return the objects lent to us in good condition!
St. Paul wrote: “Do not owe your neighbor anything, except to love one another.” What a beautiful program! By respecting the property of our neighbor, we respect his person, that is to say we are practicing justice, the essential starting point for practicing fraternal charity.
Translated from the French by Associate Editor Jane Carver.