Needs or Wants?

There is an old joke that says, “When I was a child my parents got the white meat of the chicken.  Now that I’m a parent my children get the white meat of the chicken.  When will it be my turn?”

Even if the white meat isn’t really your preference, this joke does speak to a big change that took place in ideas about parents and children.  At one time we thought children were supposed to defer to parents; now parents feel that they are supposed to defer to children.   And the image of the “good mother” became one who puts her children’s needs first.

This idea has created lots of confusion and worry for mothers. Child development research has told us that beyond the need for physical care, good care means meeting children’s emotional and psychological needs.  But what are they?  And how do you do that?  It’s not just that the answers given in much child rearing advice keep changing.  It’s also that trying to apply those answers is often unworkable, because there is no clear cut definition of what a child truly needs in any given real life situation.

A working mom said to me, “I missed a school program my daughter was in and in my mind I was thinking that ten years from now she’ll say, ‘You know why I’m all screwed up?  Because you didn’t come to this and this and this’.”

Another mother talked about the conflict she was feeling because of a rare opportunity to join her husband on a business trip that would mean leaving her two year old for a week.  She wanted to know whether such a separation wouldn’t cause terrible problems for her child.

Mothers not only want to do the “right thing” for their children, they worry about the consequences if they do the “wrong thing”.  But mothers have needs too, and that’s where the conflict comes in.  This conflict between a mother’s needs and a child’s needs has intensified for mothers working outside the home, but it exists for all mothers.  It goes with the territory, because children are dependent on us and we are responsible for their care.

It may start with something that seems clear cut, like the baby’s need to be fed at night conflicting with mom’s need for sleep.  But even then, mothers sometimes say,  “He’s just crying because he wants to be picked up”.  We know that babies do need to be held (although once even that was a “no, no”).  The point is that even at the beginning,  needs and wants can get mixed up.

As children get older, it becomes even more complicated, because 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.  Mom is not yet another person who has to be considered.  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 mothers get mixed up about what they need and what they want.

Sometimes, when a conflict arises, a mother feels she has no choice, as with the mom whose job made it impossible for her to attend the school play.  Other mothers who work because their work life is important to them, struggle with their feelings of conflict and guilt. But there are so many other situations, like the mom with the trip possibility, where the conflict is between something a mom wants for herself and her fear that she will be damaging her child by failing to meet his needs.  Is the child’s need for mom greater than her need to do something for herself?  Children, of course, think the answer to that is yes.  But that doesn’t make it so.

What we are really confronting here is a fundamental question in all relationships.  When two people have conflicting needs, how do you decide which is more important?  Mothers tend to look for the “right” answer that will resolve the conflict.  The problem is that there is no “right answer”.  There is no rule that can tell a mother whether staying with her child is more important than going on a trip with her husband.  There is no way for a mother to know with certainty what the consequences will be of missing the school play.

One of the hardest things about raising children is that these conflicts are ongoing and have to be thought through each time.  The mom conflicted about the trip has to think through what she knows about her son, how he has been dealing with separations, who will stay with him while she is gone, and are there ways she can prepare him for her absence.  Most important, she has to accept the idea that he may be angry with her when she returns, and express that anger in behavior that makes life difficult for her.  (A credit card company once had an ad that said “travel now, pay later”.) But none of that means that she shouldn’t go with her husband.  The importance of the trip for her and for her marriage, is the other part of the equation.

The main point is that both this mom and the one who missed the school play have to make these decisions based on their knowledge of their own situation – not on some theoretical “right” thing to do.  The most important thing they can do is to be ready to help their children deal with whatever their feelings are in response to mom’s decisions.  Children can survive frustration.  If you help them master it, you will help them grow.