“This body is mine, cuz it was born on me. Just I get to use it, and no one else. That’s why it’s my body.” That’s the extent of 3 year old Echo’s concept of what she owns — pretty much everything else is for everyone. When asked if there is anything else that is hers, she will usually reply, “No, those are just the things that I’m using…”
We have a number of “radical theories” regulating the interactions in our home. We don’t spank, we don’t punish, don’t praise, don’t allow TV, don’t think of our kids as manipulating heathens in need of control, we don’t threaten them, we don’t reward them with gold stars, don’t focus all of our energy on making them “behave”, and don’t worry about them needing to be “taught a lesson” every time they make a mistake. We also don’t subscribe to or teach our kids the notion that this thing I am using is “mine”.
It’s a trivial slight of hand maneuver at first consideration, but what we model in our home, instead, is the use of the phrase, “the ______ that I am using”. Or if there is enough context already, we might just say “the ______” ( as in “the chair”, “the car”, “this shirt”). We’re no fools — we know everywhere else in the world that these children go, they will have to translate the way others refer to things, so we don’t fret when they do say “mine”. In fact, in those situations, we now usually rely on one of the other girls to make a rephrasing suggestion (if necessary) like, “You mean the Gak that you’re using?” (They have their own feelings about it, and when they feel like the clarification is better, they ask for it.)
When we first came up with the idea, it was difficult — mostly for us adults. We’re heavily inundated with the word “mine”. People use possessive language for everything from the random fork placed in front of them at a restaurant, and other things they will ever only use once, to the things they rent or purchase, and the ideas bouncing around in their heads. And now that I am sensitized to it, I find people so interested in using the word “mine” that it becomes almost hilarious — “my seat” on the tour bus; “my place” in line or in a book; “my parking spot” in the mall lot; “my straw wrapper”; “my dental hygienist”… We insert “my” and “mine” into almost any phrase involving something we are using, or someone we are employing. It’s a very suitable convention for a powerful belief in brevity, but not particularly useful for teaching children about sharing, or relating to the world of transitory objects.
Please don’t misunderstand, I am not being obtuse, here, I know language is intentionally derived to support this tendency. I know American English, in particular, is geared toward ease of phrasing — and that “mine” just gets thrown in so much because it is remarkably faster than always saying “the couch I use…” or “the car I drive…” or “the partner I have…” For me, though, the ease of phrasing, belies a fairly glaring conceptual difficulty.
You see the trouble is, for most people, the word “mine” is not actually translated as “this thing I am using”. Most of us get tricked into thinking of the thing as belonging to us (whether we want to own it or not). So by saying, “my parking spot” at the mall, I have surreptitiously sought to lay claim to the place where I am going to temporarily park the car I use — to control the 6×10 piece of property, and my relationship to it, and to keep others away from it. And we are almost instinctually geared to protect “our possessions”, to fend off advances, to out-maneuver the competition, to conquer, and to horde if we fear scarcity. Maybe you’ve witnessed something like this when your little one grabs the toy with which another kid was playing and shouts, “MINE!” In the end, the word colors our perception of the things to which it is applied, and changes our relationship to them, such that we are no longer just using them, we are fighting to defend them from all.
So rather than let our daughters slip into this particular linguistic snare, we model going the long way around — and we think that we gain a few benefits by doing so:
- First, we avoid the grab and yell tactic noted above. The girls are not confused about whether or not they have the kind of claim to the item that would warrant such an action. In fact, Echo picked up the idea from another kid, and tried it out once, but was immediately shut down by Xi’s gentle reminder, “No, Coco, those toys are for all of us,” and I haven’t seen her do it since.
- Secondly, because there is no “mine” — it is understood that everything is for everyone. This creates a perfect environment for easy sharing, and for more relaxed waiting for one’s turn with a particular thing. It’s also a beautiful antidote to envy, and animosity over “what she has”. And as I’ve said before, even on birthdays, all the girls are celebrating the presents that they will all get to enjoy.
- Additionally, with no “mine”, we find our girls actually practicing various forms of negotiation. Since they have no grounds for scooping up the toy in question and declaring ownership, they are afforded the opportunity to work it out with each other instead. Often they need help, but no more than a parent shouting, “Give your sister’s towel back! It’s isn’t yours, it’s your sister’s. Give it back... 1…. 2…… Don’t make me come in there….” You get the point.
- Finally, though there are still more gains from exiling ownership, the other one I want to mention at present is that we have almost completely side-stepped having to remember who’s thingywhatsit is who’s. There are a couple of items, like a journal, a small “special box” for personal treasures, etc. that each girl keeps for just her own usage. And there have been a couple of occasions when we had to try and sort out who had which box, or which journal. But only once or twice, seriously.
All of which adds up to an easier home life for all of us. We are all more relaxed, and more cooperative because of this simple word magic. We have all benefited from loosening our hold on the things in our lives, and from being clearer with how we talk about them. You will be noticeably floating downstream while others are diligently swimming up if you try this tactic (which has it’s social ramifications…), and you may have to say a few more words, but we think the benefits more than balance those expenditures.
If you want to read more on this topic, check out Natalie’s post here.