wants needs

Wants and Needs: Can Your Child Tell the Difference?

“But mom, I neeeeed it!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard these five words come out of my kids’ mouths—and the expression on their faces when they say it is almost funny! I use the word rather loosely here because, in reality, understanding the difference between a need and a want is extremely important and not to be laughed at. Unfortunately, countless parents think it’s cute when their young children pout for treats, demanding their wants until their amused moms and dads acquiesce. However, that same amusement evaporates into mortified embarrassment when their children grow up to resemble Violet from Willy Wonka.

We are so fortunate in the United States because most of us have everything we need, even beyond the very basics of food, water, and shelter. Most of us have ample access to those primary needs, as well as clothing, education, work, and medicine. Because our needs are so often met and wants are frequently accessible, it’s vital to teach children from the beginning the difference between wants and needs. If you don’t, they can grow up thinking they need everything they want. Even if your children are older, it’s never too late for this valuable lesson. Here are three ways to get you started.    

1. Teach Them with Every Day Choices

I like this example because shoe shopping is a common temptation to all. My son ran through shoes quickly. But when we walked into a store, he would immediately run over to the most expensive, flashy pair. His argument: “But mom, I neeeed shoes!” My argument: “Yes, you need new shoes, but you want these shoes. There are plenty of others that would do the same job.”  We would discuss that the amount of dollars that would cover his need for shoes. I would then ask him how important the “want” pair of shoes was to him. After that, it was his choice. I would cover the need and he had to pay for anything over that amount. It taught him that needs are more important than wants and that they are a luxury, not a necessity. So the next time you go shopping with your kids for something specific, give them options and talk them through making a wise decision. 

2. Teach Them to Handle a Budget

When it comes to my girls, I’ve always known that a new school year meant one thing for them: new clothes! But instead of allowing them to shop to their hearts’ content (which would easily have meant turning our entire house into their personal closets), I would give them each a certain budget. This is a step up from my last example because they actually got to control the money. I would say: “Here’s your money for school clothes. I recommend you get three outfits that you know you’ll wear, but it’s up to you to spend wisely.” Sure, they wanted to blow all their money on one expensive sweater, but they quickly learned to search for good bargains in order to purchase all of the things they needed.   

3. Teach Them to Be Content

Ultimately, teaching your child the difference between what they want and what they need means teaching them to be content. They need to understand that desires are secondary to necessities. You can help your child develop contentment in a variety of ways. Try giving them exposure to those less fortunate—people who truly are in need. Try cleaning out old toys and clothes to donate to people in need. Try serving homeless people at a soup kitchen together. Or, try helping your child make a list of all the things they are thankful for. No matter what you choose, be sure that your child learns to develop a heart of contentment, compassion, and generosity.    

As cute as it is for young children to beg for something they think they need, allowing that attitude to continue is only fostering discontentment and selfishness. Teach your child how to tell the difference between what they want and what they need, and help them develop a heart that desires to meet the needs of others. We can all agree that we need more of that in the world! 

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