What do kids find worth fighting over?

Maybe Alchian and Demsetz would not be surprised:

A team of leading British and American scholars asked 108 sibling pairs in Colorado exactly what they fought about.  Parental affection was ranked dead last.  Just 9% of the kids said it was to blame for the arguments of competition.

The more common reason the kids were fighting was the same one that was the ruin of Regan and Goneril; sharing the castle's toys.  Almost 80% of the older children, and 75% of the younger kids, all said sharing physical possessions — or claiming them as their own — caused the most fights.

Nothing else came close.  Although 39% of the younger kids did complain that their fights were about…fights.  They claimed, basically, that they started fights to stop their older siblings from hitting them.

That is from the new book NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which I found interesting at times.  "Interesting enough to read" is perhaps its category.  Here is a WSJ review.

I should add that I don't think the cited research settles the matter.  Children might fight over toys as credible signals of parental affection, caring more about the signal than about the toy per se.


My subjective experience (observing my own sons), is that Tyler's point is spot-on. Even the fights that seem to be about toys, or about who gets the bigger piece of cake, are really about Mom/Dad giving the toy, or doling out the cake.

I don't think they could control for that in a study. At least, not in an ethical study.

Speaking as the eldest of seven children (four boys, three girls), sibling fights are not directly about mom/dad. Purely a matter of establishing and maintaining pecking/pack order.

Oh, and every girl needs a big brother. Makes both of them tough.

And since I'm rambling and have the floor, every man needs a daughter. ALL of my male friends who had children were changed for the better by having at least one daughter. It is not a wife who socializes a husband, it is a daughter.

My fights with my brother were never about parents. They were always about control. In that we would fight when I wanted us to play one thing, but he didn't. Since I was older, I usually won ;).

Wow, the authors got published for showing that kids fight over toys? What a racket. Of course they do. Any parent knows that. Kwahoo's point about fighting for control of play agenda is, I'd say, a subset of fighting over toys--who gets to use what toy during play can determine their role in play.

Anyone who thinks their kids fight over toys because they are symbols of parental affection either overanalyzes the fights, starves their children for affection, or is neurotic about whether they give their kids enough attention. Seriously, two boys fighting over cake are fighting about who gets the biggest cake, not for Mommy's affection. Now, fighting with a parent because their sibling got a toy and they didn't, that I can see. But that isn't what the argument is.

Based on the other comments, I'm not sure I would consider children accurate reporters of why they fight. Fights over toys are probably much more salient to them and than abstract issues like pecking order and control.

It's about testing the parents' affection. Watch kids - their biggest fights are in front of parents, not in private, and they are both keenly aware of how the parents are reacting. Big Brother wants to know what a) he can get away with, b) what Little Brother can get away with, and c) what happens when he can't get away with it anymore.

There were times as children when my brother and I would fight. We both knew that fighting was against the house rules - we would both get a spanking if we were caught fighting. Several times, we would spontaneously form a story about how we were just playing, not really fighting, when we were caught. My parents undoubtedly knew, but liked to encourage sibling cooperation, so they would let it fly.

Now my brother and I talk 3-4 times a week on the phone, despite living a thousand miles from each other. We're closer than any other sibling pair I know.

“Why did this criminal commit murder? He meant to rob.† But I tell you, that his soul wanted blood, not the prize of theft: he thirsted for the happiness of the knife!

Most of my kids' fights are over toys, but it seems to me to be less about power & more simply an involuntary reaction to scarcity. Since there is generally only one of each type of toy, as soon as a sibling picks a toy up, that toy becomes scarce to everyone else, and immediately becomes more valuable to them. If they manage to get it, it's value is diminished. So, a vicious circle ensues where everyone wants what everyone else has. I think it's mostly a simple scarcity issue. I suppose it's about power to the extent that anything is, but I think the trigger is scarcity & I think that trigger is very reflexive & basic.

Is there any indication that this has any effect on later life? Does being an only child vs. having siblings have a measurable effect on any objectively quantifiable aspect of adult life (income, IQ, lifespan, incarceration rate)? I know there are some differences related to birth order among siblings but I have not read any studies comparing "siblinged" and "non-siblinged".

The authors beat me to it, but most of our fights were over simple disagreements. Most often my brother thought I needed an ass kicking and I disagreed.

I could see this boiling down to the prison dynamic. You can't escape your siblings, so first they take your Batman, and if you let them get away with it, your Batmobile is next.

They can kick the crap out of you and take it, but they aren't allowed to kill you, and then at least they know there in store for a fight.

If there were no toys there would be almost no fights?

This makes you wonder if academics were ever children.

Based on my experience as one of three brothers and as the parent of 4 small children -

Kids fight almost exclusively about toys and play, but that's just a symptom - what do kids DO most of the time? Play with toys. So virtually all fighting is going to involve playing or toys.

But really, its about control and dominance. My second boy will hit the oldest when the oldest refused to play with him. When my youngest picks up a toy, the next-youngest will immediately decide that she wants that toy. It's just a dominance thing.

How this relates to desire for parental attention? My observation is that the kids are more irritable and more prone to annoying/attention-getting behavior when we aren't giving them enough attention. This leads to fights, for obvious reasons, but they don't directly fight over our attention.

"Maybe Alchian and Demsetz would not be surprised"

They certainly would NOT be surprised.


Scroll to the bottom for the "Property Rights for Sesame Street† by Janet Beales Kaidantzis.

To a large extent, I agree with what Liz has to say.

Part of it is that I think parents tend to give an eldest girl more responsibility with her younger siblings than an eldest boy.

And when you're a girl with younger brothers, you fight on their terms, not yours.

It could also be about control issues rather than the toys themself. Mind you there also may be jealousy/rivalry involved if your sibling has the better toy.

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