My son is a man of few words. At 20 months, he has learned a handful — “momma” and “bubbles” figure prominently — but recently, one word started to pop up frequently in his repertoire: me. Every morning, as we make our smoothies, he points at the blender, shouting “Me! ME!” He wants his turn to push the “on” button, much to his four-year-old sister’s chagrin.
Chris Moore, a developmental psychologist and director of the Early Social Development Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says that this period of social and cognitive development is when kids gain “an understanding of themselves and other people as separate individuals.” Though dependent on language acquisition, this stage is most acute around two, and starts to level off by age three.
“Kids start to see themselves as a person — they have characteristics, both physical and mental, that are similar and different from others. This sets up, to some extent, conflict,” says Moore. “Kids have strong desires and motivations — part of that is ownership of their things. I’m me. This is mine. It is a perfectly normal stage that we want children to go through.”
Wendy Burch Jones, a Scarborough, Ont., mother of two, is in the throes of this with two-year-old, Zachary. “He has an older brother, so he learned early,” she says. Having taught grade one, Burch Jones is used to diffusing conflicts over sharing, but she says her classroom experience does not compare to the scene at home. “This morning, they fought over a toy car. We have 100, but they both wanted the grey one.” Most of the time, Burch Jones, lets her boys sort it out themselves — which experts say is the best strategy for parents — but she has to referee when squabbles turn into tears, or things get rough. “We go back to taking turns. Instead of their go-to action, which is grabbing, I remind them how to ask nicely.”
Moore reassures parents that this is a healthy developmental stage for toddlers, and you shouldn’t feel the need to curb it. “It’s important for kids to establish independence and individuality,” he says. “If two children are playing with toys and keep saying ‘mine,’ teach them to recognize that the other child has feelings and an interest in that toy, too — we call this ‘perspective taking.’”
The concept of sharing can be learned early on. “Even babies will show reciprocity with adults,” says Moore. But certain aspects — such as fairness — are not grasped until much later. He gives an example: “If you give a three-year-old the choice between taking two candies for himself or sharing one with someone else, he is more likely to take two for himself — although he will share on occasion, and is more likely to share with friends than with strangers.”
Identifying what is theirs (and what isn’t) is a trait that never disappears completely. We always have an interest in what is ours, explains Moore, but, thankfully, it isn’t as forcefully expressed later on as it is during this early stage of childhood. “After a while, the notion of independence has been established.”
Burch Jones sees the benefits of her sons’ possessiveness. “It’s interesting watching Zach as he distinguishes himself as a separate person, and tries to control and test his universe,” she says. “The flip side of the whiny ‘mine’ stage is that he and his older brother are finally playing together. It’s been magical to watch their friendship develop, and to watch their personalities unfold.”
A version of this article appeared in our July 2013 issue with the headline “What’s yours is mine,” p. 54.