No! Mine!

“No! Mine!”

“Stop. Mine!”

“Agggghhhhh! Miiiiiiiiine!”

This is sometimes the refrain in our toddler program. If you spend any time with toddlers who happen to live in a world with other people, it may sound familiar to you. In your head right now, the exact pitch of that final, “Mine!” may be echoing.

Toddler Property Laws:

1. If I like it, it’s mine.
2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
5. If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.
8. If I saw it first, it’s mine.
9. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it automatically becomes mine.
10. If it’s broken, it’s yours.

To some adults, this is like nails on a chalkboard. It really pushes buttons. I have even witnessed adults taking the toy or item that is being discussed so feverishly and interjecting with, “No. It’s mine. And you’re all done.” Or, “I see you aren’t able to share this. You’re all done,” and then the item is tucked away on a high shelf and the only lesson learned is that the adult is taller, more controlling, and in a pretty bad mood.

There are many ideas that adults have for “encouraging” young children to “share”, but there is only one way that works in a truly meaningful way and that’s modeling. Modeling the behavior you wish to encourage. Modeling consistently. Calmly. Modeling a generous spirit. Modeling it from the heart, with respect for the children and for ownership and opinions. Oh, and being prepared to wait for it and to support them all along the way.

Think of how blissfully empowering it must feel to be a toddler who has discovered and now OWNS the concept of, “Mine!” Think of what they have learned to get to this phase in life:

  • I am my own person.
  • I really like this thing.
  • I have a voice.
  • I can influence the world around me with this voice.
  • I’m not done with this and I can say so.

Instead of letting this phase get under our skin, why not re-frame the equation in a more positive light? Try these responses, the next time you hear that shrill refrain. (Again, think modeling. Take a deep breath and say the words you want to hear parroted back one magical, peaceful day.)

“You’re using that, aren’t you? You’re holding on to it.”

“You’re not done with it, are you? You’re letting them know that you’re still using it.”

“You really like that toy, don’t you? I see you’re using it.”

When you use these words, you’re defusing the tension. You’re validating the child who is attempting to claim ownership of something. You’re not taking any sides, you’re just commenting on what you see and hear. To the child who is wanting to use something in someone else’s hands, you might say:

“I see that she’s still using that. Do you want to go over here or over there while we wait for her to be all done?”

“I think she will put it down again when she’s all done using it. Do you want to walk with me and see if we can find another one for you to use?”

“You saw that toy and you wanted to use it too. Everyone seems to like that one. When it’s your turn to use it, you can use it until you’re done, too.”

“It’s hard to wait for your turn. Could I help you to wait by sitting with you?”

When you use these words, you’re validating the feelings of the child who really wants to use what the other child is using. It really is hard to wait, isn’t it? This is not our strongest suit, as a society.

Some food for thought: Do we really want to raise children to give things away as soon as someone else asks for them? Is this actually sharing at all? When we see toddlers standing strong in their sense of self and ownership, we should take a few minutes to revel in this awesome strength of spirit and to consider how we might nurture that as they grow.

By the same token: Do we really want children to be appeased the moment that they ask for or demand something? What do we envision, exactly, when we make one child give something to another because that seems somehow easier or because we’re worried about what people will think of us if we don’t (en)force “sharing”? The opportunity to wait could be valued in and of itself. Not to mention the lesson of respecting the time and space of other children.

Consider that just like the toddler’s use of “No!” can mean a hundred different things, including, “Yes!” (another post for another day), “Mine!” has myriad meanings from, “I’m using this,” to, “I used that earlier,” to, “I like the look of that,” to, “I think you’re too close to me.” The toddler who declares, “MINE!” is doing something you have perhaps been coaxing them to do for ages — they’re “using their words” to express their needs, interests, and desires. They’re trying to let someone else know their limits. This is nothing but a positive thing.

It sometimes seems like it takes a long time for children to learn to “share” (another example of how we adults struggle with waiting for things, right?), but what actually takes a long time is becoming perfectly attuned to our adult expectations for their behavior. In fact, young children are very capable of initiating incredibly generous exchanges all by themselves. We just tend to pay a lot more attention to the really loud conflicts, rather than the quiet kindnesses.

Many people have written about this kind of topic better than I! If you’re starting to think about “sharing” and toddlers in a new way, you may be interested in these lovely pieces:

From Janet Lansbury:
These Toddlers Are NOT Sharing
The S Word — Toddlers Learning to Share

From Emily Plank, an interview with Heather Shumaker, author of It’s Okay Not to Share.

Stop Telling Your Toddler to Share


One thought on “No! Mine!

  1. peggy says:

    I love this advice, I completely agree with your discription of what the word “mine” means to a toddler. Adults so often demand or have an impossible expectation the toddler has no idea they are supposed to meet. Where adults are thinking social manners and propriety toddlers are still grasping their place in the world. Your suggested responses to “mine” are sublime and empathetic. I believe I will make them mine.

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