Possession — 9/10 of the Problem?

“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.


Be well.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
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15 Responses to Possession — 9/10 of the Problem?

  1. debbyflorence says:

    Hi Nathan,

    Its truly a real pleasure reading your blog. When i read how you guys parent i feel inspired yet disheartened at the same time..I have an interest in how lifestyle and income affect parents best intentions.. I wonder if you and natalie work full time? If you do, please share how to get through a day.. i am having such a hard time!

    When my son was between the ages of 0 and 3, I followed these principles pretty closely. I was also a stay at home mom, or at most worked part time or took a couple classes at the U. It was thousands of times easier to have presence of mind to practice this sort of parenting. My son wasnt in school, i had no other worldly obligations to pressure me to mold both of us to fit and succeed in society. i just read parenting books and snuggled him as much as i wanted. Then i was divorced, and in a really serious bout of poverty and stress for a couple years, and have struggled hard to get on my feet. OKay, i am on my feet and my son is in 3rd grade. Public school is really weird.

    Another thing i have noticed on parenting sites that have to do with these kinds of very nice methods, believe me i love what you’re saying.. is that the children are usually still very young. I didnt punish or praise.. i nursed my son until he was 3.. i coslept i put him in a sling, and so on. No TV here, even still. But school. School has made a huge impact on what happens between us. And I dont have the option to homeschool or take him out of school. I have to work full time, and he has to go to public school.

    Homework in 3rd grade is now between 45 minutes to an hour each precious day. I get home from work at 5 and have to be like this horrible drill Sargent , reminding him over and over to get it done. I sit next to him and urge him through each math problem, through his understandable resistance. I try everything from setting timers so he can see how much time is going by to helping with each question. It puts such a strain on me. I resent him for taking 2 -3 hours to do a half hour of work, he drags his feet and gets distracted and stares at the paper and says ” i cant”, when i know he does already have the skills to do the work in front of him. Then its bed time and i still havent had a moment, all day, to just sit and rest. I dont want him to be stigmitized at school for not doing his work. I dont want him to have a feeling that he is a failure because he doesnt get his paperwork done. I am also only able to do so much in a day. Rasoning with him is exhausting. 8 year olds are totally sophisticated. I am so worn out! Its maddening. So i have to come up with a reward system to give him SOME extra reason to do it. And to relieve me a little bit so i dont fall apart.

    As of right now, he gets rewards for getting through his day with x amount of tasks completed. Getting him ready for school in the morning has also become a nightmare because i have to get ready for work. Unless i stand over him and watch him and say ” ok now go get your backpack” he wont do it, he’d rather pick up a book and sit on the couch. I love that he reads so much, and feel terrible when i have to tell him to stop reading. But school starts at 8:25 , and i have to be at work as well.. time doesnt stop for us even though i really wish it would sometimes…So getting ready for school without me having to remind , is part of his reward system. So is the bed time routine. He has to brush his teeth and do jammies, without me following around making sure its happening.

    I want to have this kind of parenting life you talk about. But i dont understand how on earth a working person with a child in public school could ever get there. it seems to be a parenting style only available to those with some sort of financial fall-back, so they can eat, live somewhere decent, and not be too exhausted to wholeheartedly dive into parenting. I am tired. I am seeking a way to solve this , and I am curious what your response to it is. I love the way you talk about the world, I share your vision, but for me its just really complex, how to enact it, in this society. Can you write an article about poverty and parenting? Or not having as much freedom and parenting? How , really, how do i get him to get his homework done if he doesnt want to , and the consequence is this baffling situation at school…i am not trying to debate what you are saying, i really agree with you.. i want to hear what you think about this topic. Thanks Nathan!

    • Hi Debby,

      Thanks for commenting with such bravery and honesty, and for providing such rich ground for future posting! I am going to respond with a multilateral approach. Some of it will show up in at least two upcoming posts, and I will likely email you personally as well, but what I wanted to do right now is just say — Yeah, I totally get it.

      You sound worn out and worn down. Frustrated. On the edge (or over) of hopelessness. And just plain bummed that what you want for, and to do with, your son isn’t panning out the way you would prefer. I also hear what I can only describe as a feeling of being utterly trapped. You want to be able to live up to your parenting ideals, but feel that your life situation is barring you from that, to the point that you have wound up doing some things to which you are actually opposed. I hear you.

      It isn’t easy. And it is actually becoming more difficult. Our parents could still provide for their family on a single income. For us that is considerably more challenging. So the time we have to give our children is both a more precious commodity, and more likely to be when we are not at our best (because we are worn out from work). Then, in large part because we are having to work and not living near family, our children have to be farmed out to daycares, preschools, and then public school to be raised. Those institutions aren’t designed to parent (and certainly not in a attachment parenting style), so our children don’t get enough of what they are supposed to have, which complicates the time that we do get to spend with them. Then add the layer of obligatory school performance, and you have a perfect storm of familial discontent.

      There are two bottom lines I would like to assert here — and then further discussion later in the other forms I mentioned above. First, “the (very) bottom line” is — as I discussed in the post with the same name, and which I am sure you already do — love that sweet boy. And don’t let something as external as homework ever give him reason to doubt that. Maybe you really can’t avoid rewards as incentive to do homework, but you can make sure that the subject of homework never eclipses your connection. You can make sure he knows you love him, and will continue doing so, no matter if he does his homework or not.

      And the second bottom line is actually a question — is it really, I mean really so important that he avoid being “stigmatized at school for not doing his work” that you are willing to put your own relationship with him under duress? If what you have tried isn’t working, and based on what you describe is actually generating greater resistance to doing the work, then maybe not doing anything would be preferable. Let’s face it, the current system of public schooling in this country is farcical. The extreme absence of funding aside, it’s pedagogy doesn’t match up with what we know of human psychology, such that public school itself isn’t effective as a mechanism of human development — in fact it may even retard normal, healthy development. SO if he doesn’t perform perfectly in a defunct system, is that really something to put stress on your relationship about? Only you can answer that for yourself, but I am inclined to say it isn’t.

      I was an indignant student most of my scholastic career. I failed general math in 7th grade, exclusively because I refused to do my homework. I then aced Algebra in 8th grade (because homework wasn’t part of the grade), but even when I had good grades in academics, I had poor grades in “conduct”. Furthermore, although I was “stigmatized” by teachers for not putting forth enough effort to reflect my intellect, I was more concerned about being socially exiled by my friends for being too successful in school. So I can empathize with not wanting to do “the stupid boring homework”, too. Maybe there is room in your approach with your son, to empathize with his plight (more, if you already are…).

      Your son will live through school, whether he excels at it or not. It seems to me your relationship is worth more than his performance.

      Thanks again for joining the discussion. Be on the look out for some upcoming posts directed toward some of the things you’ve brought up.

      Be well, Debby.

  2. chris white says:

    great article! my boy has not started saying mine yet (only 2yo) but i am glad to have this on my radar for when it starts.
    look forward to reading more on your site.

    • Thanks for writing in Chris.

      Yes “mine” is something to watch for, but also something to program against.

      With our wee ones, we can make things easier for all of us by remaining mindful of how we use words like, “mine”, “not yours”, “mommy’s”, or “daddy’s”. And we can promote the notion that things are for use by all, not for hoarding. This may mean putting things that aren’t appropriate for little ones to play with or check out, away for awhile, and/or practicing saying, “Not for play,” rather than “Not yours”.

      Thanks again.
      Be well.

  3. Thank you for your “swimming upstream” perspectives! I have checked in here at least a few times now (it’s a saved favorite) and each time I read, at first I tend to think, “Whoa…really??” And then the more I ponder the particular issue you’re discussing, it really makes sense. It just takes time to process these concepts b/c they truly are such a contrast to what’s “normal” in our society. But I thank you for continuing to challenge these “normal” notions and cultural practices.

    • Thanks Sarah.

      I really appreciate your encouragement. And I will continue, don’t worry. It’s sort of a “square peg” imperative. 😉

      Checked out your blog and fb page. So glad you are out there doing what you’re doing, too. It all starts during pregnancy and birth. If those things are done consciously and conscientiously, it makes the whole parenting process so much smoother for child and parents.

      Keep keepin’ on!

  4. Helen says:

    Hi Nathan,

    Love this idea.
    My boy is 19 months and I remember we used to say ‘not for playing’, or ‘not for small babies’. I realise I have, in the explosion of new skills since he turned one, forgotten and resorted to ‘mine, not yours’. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Music to my ears, Helen. Thank you for letting me know.

      Would love to hear more about what you discover.

      Be well.

      • Helen says:

        Hi Nathan,
        Am finding a stumbling block. What do you do with food/drink and paraphernalia? Particularly water bottles and the piece of something you are currently eating.

        Now that I’m writing this my guess is “This is the waterbottle that I am using/ the watermelon/cake/sandwich that I am eating” to echo “this is the thing that I am using”.
        It is a big mindshift. I’ll keep working on it.

        The shift from ‘the thing that I am using’ to ‘the thing that i use’ is too far isn’t it?

      • Hi Helen,

        Sorry, I should have said in the post — the version you create for your family will be based on what works for you. SO there may be things you work out that we do differently… I encourage you to explore based on what feels right to you.

        But, for us, food that one is actually eating moves closer toward ownership than the crayon with which one is coloring. We will likely still say, “the food you’re eating…” but we also don’t expect that the food on the plate in front of each of us is fair game for anyone to start eating. The water bottle is always “the water bottle” or “the water bottle you’re/I’m/she’s using” as is the water inside it.

        The “thing that I use” is perhaps a little too close to “the thing you can’t use because I do” for general usage, but if that is the case (like with a toothbrush) then it will have to do, right? If the thing you are talking about is actually something you don’t want the kids to use because you need it for work, or something like that, then I would suggest that you employ more of a “not for play” kind of strategy. And explain the situation or distinction to them as well.

        Let me know if you need more clarification.

        Be well.

  5. Hi Nathan, Been reading your blog and really enjoying it. I want to go back to the school issue. I was talking to my hairdresser today. She is having trouble with her son. He’s not coping with homework. Both parents work, when they get home she has to prepare food, help the child with his homework, and then it’s bed, and then another day of the same. She says her children don’t know how to play because they don’t have time to, and the parents don’t have any time for quality time with the kids — it’s all work. We know from people like Sir Ken Robinson and Naomi Aldort that modern main-stream schooling is actually bad for children. Children with the potential to be geniuses are instead becoming burned out depressed people with no future. We have the evidence (since A.S. Neil in the 1900s) and now we have the studies. What can we do to get “the system” to implement the kind of education that could help every child enjoy learning and reach their full potential?

    • Hi Patricia,

      Thanks for writing in. It’s fun to hear from you in this format; and I greatly appreciate learning of your experience with the blog.

      As to the school thing — geez, I really don’t know what it’ll take. Are you familiar with Rich Ackerly? You can track him down via my Facebook profile (he’s a friend) or at geniusinchildren.org (I think that’s it…) — see what he’s up to. Rick has been in the American public school system for decades and was involved with turning low-achieving schools around. He’s convinced of two things, as I understand it: 1) Increasing focus on standards and standardized testing, etc., nearly always makes matters worse (he says the data is longitudinal and clear on this, since we’ve been keeping stellar records on standardized testing in this country since the beginning). And 2) The best way to “get kids to achieve their highest potentials” in school, in particular, is to treat them as the avid seekers and digesters of information that they naturally are (rather than as we treat them now — as though they won’t get anything unless we shove it into their heads, and make them produce evidence of their having “gotten it”…). As a homeschooler (tending sometimes more toward “unschooling”), I have given up on the public system a little bit… I think the present model should certainly be abandoned (did you read the post[s] I did on public education?); and I definitely agree with Rick on the nature of the changes that need to be made — it’d even make public education cheaper.

      But, until there’s enough drive, I don’t see it happening. We’re hellbent on just getting them into the system as early (too early!) as possible and filling their little heads with junk in hopes of head-starting them into greater capacity, but it just means we overwhelm and burn out the kids’ interests sooner. I also believe that early preschool education is terrible for the parent-child bond and therefore undermines the brain’s natural (secure) development and inhibits/retards intellectual capacity. The necessary “drive” to change the system, at least at first, would have to be educating the education system itself of it’s own deleterious effects. That’ll be something of an endeavor, but the science is getting louder about it and the interest is there, particularly because we’re being made to look like idiots in comparison to the rest of the world.

      It probably won’t actually be that long before it changes, but it sure feels distant from here, doesn’t it?

      Fun chatting with you, Patricia!

      Be well.

      • Hi Nathan, Thanks for the links and your great reply — I look forward to reading more of your stuff when I can make the time. While we are waiting for the “new” education to arrive, it’s nice to know that there are teachers inside the system who are trying to make it work better for the kids they teach.

        I have a story to share. In Junior School (that’s grade 1 to grade 7 here) I won a prize every year for getting an aggregate of over 80%. My mother pumped the facts into me every day after school and then I regurgitated them on the tests, did well, and then forgot most of it. But often I managed to survive by “escaping” as soon as I got home, and playing with the animals on our farm or fishing for tadpoles in the stream till suppertime. Most of the life-skills I have today I learned that way, like watching animals giving birth or helping nurse sick ones back to health. I also planted and raised flowers, turned over stones to learn about all the little things that lived under them, and made a little “stove” where I lit a fire and cooked up concoctions of things made from rotten fruit. When I got home I was moaned at and made to do my homework, but I had managed to play a little so I had something good in my life.

        Then in grade 7 we had a wonderful teacher. She let us get through our work at our own pace, and then we were free to do handwork. We could paint, knit, sew, embroider, do tapestry, etc. and she taught us how to make a loom and weave, and make baskets with cane and raffia. Each lesson period lasted about 30 minutes, and I usually managed to get through the “work” in five or ten of them, and then start doing the fun things. We were allowed to move around quietly when the “work” was done, sit with friends to show them how to make things, etc. We could choose whatever crafts we wanted to do — she just provided the materials.

        Some of the girls (girl’s-only school) made amazing things and real talents came out. We were experimenting with new things, learning from each other, and having fun. It’s the only happy year I remember at school. In spite of rushing through my work so I could start to do fun things, I won two prizes that year — the usual one for an 80% aggregate, and one for coming first from all the grade 7 classes in the school in one subject. It goes to show what we already know — play increases children’s intelligence, motivates them to learn useful skills, and makes the rest of the school stuff bearable.

        I hope there are a lot of people like you, your friend and my teacher around!

        It’s great to have found you! 🙂

  6. Narelle Smith says:

    I am amused by the “mine” thing with little kids – “If I touched it within the last three weeks it’s still mine.”

    The sharing thing is too crazy for kids under four when the logical and rational part of the brain doesn’t start firing up until about 3 years of age. I think metacognition starts at about the same age and that’s when empathy becomes a relatable concept for little kids.

    Having said that, my boys have always been very good around sharing things mainly because we have always emphasised “this is the stuff we have available to us and we are a family”.

    We have sharing presents for Christmas, but it’s trickier with birthday presents. They are mine-able things. I have learnt, the hard way, not to give things that are great for sharing, like construction toys, for birthdays.


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