I Need/Want It!

Waiting in line ahead of me at the supermarket checkout counter was a mother whose three-year-old girl jumped around checking out the sweets shelves nearby. Finding something that appealed to her she took it off the shelf, showed it to her mother half asking and half putting it with the other purchases. Her mother said, “No,” whereupon a familiar scene ensued with the child begging, pouting, demanding, crying until the mom finally relented and the bag of sweets was purchased.

As children grow, they have more ideas and wishes of their own and a greater ability to assert them. In addition, their own needs and wants are their primary focus. Children feel they really need whatever it is they want – and sometimes behave as if their very life depends on it. It is not surprising that parents get mixed up about what they need and what they want.

A Mom talked to me about the confusion she feels about some of her three-year-old daughter’s requests of her. On the one hand the child seems too demanding, but on the other hand mom thinks that if she weren’t working she would be able to meet those requests. Were her daughter’s requests justified? Was she asking for what she needed or for what she wanted? Partly the Mom feels angry at her daughter asking for things Mom can’t do, and that makes her feel her daughter is “spoiled”. But Mom feel guilty about the fact that she is working, and she worries that maybe her daughter really needs what she is asking for.

This mother is trying to figure out if her child’s requests are legitimate. The implication is that one of them is at fault; either Mom is to blame for not being able to meet the requests, or her child is to blame for asking. Trying to decide if something is a need or a want seems to be part of the process parents go through in responding to their children. It’s as if needing something makes it o.k. but wanting it is not. There is a kind of moral judgment that wanting things is bad.

Children want lots of things. Most of the conflicts between parents and children are over a child wanting something a parent can’t do, doesn’t want to do, or feels it inappropriate or unwise to do. Like the Mom quoted, a parent may at first feel that the requests are acceptable, but then start to feel angry with their children for asking.

There is nothing wrong with children wanting things. There is nothing wrong with not giving a child everything he wants. The problem comes with the parent’s anger and the message that the child is “bad” for wanting. The child then gets angry in turn and lets Mom know she is bad for saying no. That’s when a simple conflict turns into a conflagration.

Sometimes we unwittingly participate in this kind of escalation because it may be easier to just say yes. Nobody likes dealing with a child’s protests – which sometimes come in the wrong place at the wrong time. But what seems like the easier path often turns out to be more difficult in the end. From the child’s point of view, increasing his protests may seem like the way to go. Parent and child end up in a tug of war in which one or the other may feel defeated, but in which no one really wins.

In the conflicts that arise, children are not only seeking to gratify their wishes, but also struggling to be in charge of things over which they have very little control. Understanding that can help us be more sympathetic in our responses. It’s hard not to get what you want. But sometimes it’s hard not to give it. And that’s when we get angry at children for asking.

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