“Mine!” is a declaration with which most parents are all too familiar. Parents often respond to fighting over toys and possessions by becoming referees and sorting out what happened in order to decide the fair way to proceed. The parent becomes an investigator to find out the facts of the incident: Whose toy is it? Who had the toy first? Did they know the other wanted to play with it? Were they actually playing with it or just keeping it from the other child? Don’t they want to play with their sibling’s toys sometimes? Can’t y’all just be kind to each other?
A gospel opportunity
The answer to the final question is an emphatic “No!” The “Mine!” problem is not simply an isolated behavioral glitch. It is a worldview problem that has behavioral implications. The parental battle in this situation is not to coax the child into being a bit nicer; it is a gospel opportunity to call them to repent of idolatry. When the parent adopts the posture of referee, he or she is actually reinforcing the child’s existing self-referential categories that are the problem—not the solution. When parents permit an attitude of entitlement about toys and possessions, they are discipling their children in an entitlement worldview.
What is the alternative? Could the gospel reshape our response to the “Mine!” problem? An entitlement attitude is the manifestation of self-justifying pride, and we know according to the Scripture, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Prov. 3:34, James 4:6, 1 Pet. 5:5). Our hope is found in humility, thankfulness and grace, not in our own idolatrous self-determination about what we deserve. In fact, prideful self-determination is the root of both the rebellious angelic fall and the fall of humanity (Gen. 3; Is. 14). A parent should respond to “Mine!” with intentionality to create categories that help make the gospel intelligible.
An example of intentionality
Judi and I have eight children between the ages of three and eighteen years old. At some point, when our oldest was fairly young, we decided on how we would address the “Mine!” problem. Our plan was to teach our children that nothing in our house was theirs. They were not owners of anything, so “Mine!” was a nonsensical assertion. My wife and I bought the house, furniture, clothes, food, toys, and everything else, so they owned nothing though they had been freely given a great many things to enjoy. Even gifts from grandparents and other people ultimately belong to my wife and I because, apart from a place to store and care for them, our children would be unable to keep them.
We believe our children need to perceive themselves as stewards of an abundance of things given to them for theirs and the common familial good, but they are owners of nothing. Any time we hear “Mine!” there is no need for investigation or lengthy recounting of the facts, we simply say, “Whose is it?” to which the replay is “Daddy and Mommy’s.” If the problem persists at all, my wife and I take our toy (or whatever it is) and remove it, which sometimes means immediately disposing of the item in the garbage can.
A new worldview category
The items we provide to the household and receive into the household are there to create harmony and not division. As parents, we have the responsibility to oversee the possessions and make sure they are used to an appropriate end. Our goal is to create new categories for how our children view the world and not simply temporal behavioral change. If a child knows their parents have entrusted them to be a family steward of something, on what ground would they see it as something for their exclusive use? Or as Paul asks, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
To some parents, this strategy will seem harsh at first glance, and if they are lording their ownership over their children as if they are begrudgingly allowing them to be stewards over possessions—it is. However, if the parents’ goal is to shape a worldview that makes gospel categories more intelligible, then they should be eager and glad-hearted givers to their children. It should be obvious to our children that, though their parents will not allow them to act as though they own toys and other possessions simply for their own purposes and selfish ends, their parents delight in providing them things to use and enjoy. Where this stewardship is understood, children become thankful and content with what they are given.
Thankfulness and humility will not grow in the toxic soil of entitlement. The battle is fought in the simple activities of daily life together. One of the rules in our house is that, with a family of ten, we do not allow special orders at the restaurant drive-thru. Simply ordering twenty double cheeseburgers with no other specifications is quick, easy and cheap. One day I was ordering at a fast food restaurant, and I knew one of my children really enjoyed a particular specialty burger, so I just decided to get it for him as a special treat on that day. When I brought it home and he saw it, he said, “Wow! Thanks, I was not expecting that.” Exactly. If he had felt entitled to the specialty burger, he would not have been thankful for it.
Addressing the “Mine!” problem properly helps create categories for your children to understand how you order your family life differently as followers of Christ. Parents should tell their children that they, too, are stewards and not owners of God’s blessings, and that fact shapes how they steward their resources as well. The family home should be seen as God’s gift for the purpose of showing hospitality to others. The family vehicle should not been seen simply as a tool to help the family get around but a tool to serve others. In so doing, the household reflects the body of Christ, “the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
The church is a community birthed by grace “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:9). What a joy it would be if your children read about the church, “And all who believed were together and they had all things in common . . . distributing the proceeds to all as any had need” (Acts 2:43-44), and the first thing they think about is your home.