Wants Versus Needs

You might not think so, but babies have a job. A baby's job is to communicate her every want and need. As a parent, you have a job too. Your job is to fulfill every one of your baby's wants and needs.
That's it. We're done here. Thanks for reading. Not much else going on in this column this week.
Just one more thing: Distinguishing between wants and needs is critical. Discriminating is part of your job description too. The tricky bit is determining the difference between wants and needs. Which admittedly, is easier 15 years down the road when the children are--in all likelihood--better able to express what they want. Babies need to be fed, burped, changed, or cuddled. Because they are hungry, full, wet, or concerned. Or sometimes I guess they're tired and they need some help settling down for a nap. But that's pretty much it in baby world. Fifteen year olds have wants and needs that are marginally more complicated. As the following example may suggest:
"I want to go out on a boat until three in the morning, smoke pot, and have unprotected sex with a number of folks whom I just met" is an example of a want. The want expressed by the adolescent in the above sentence is unlikely for at least two reasons: 1) No reasonable parent would comply. 2) It is implausible to suggest that a 15-year-old would use "whom" correctly.
"Can I go out on a boat until three in the morning, smoke pot, and have unprotected sex with strangers?" is an easy question to address. A more reasonable question might be "How did we get here?" Not "How did we get here" as in "How did we get here lost here in the woods when we were supposed to be back at the campsite an hour ago?" but "How did we get here?" in the sense of "How in the name of all that is good and decent would a 15-year-old ask if he could indeed go out on a boat until three in the morning, smoke pot, and have unprotected sex with strangers"?
Ignoring for a moment that the availability of boats and pot is kind of a new thing, I have to go back 15 years. When the adolescent asking about the boat was a baby were his needs met and his wants dealt with in a loving, supportive, yet firm way? What about when your eight-month-old fussed at 3:00 am? If you ignored her indefinitely--the term "child abuse" springs to mind--then you disregarded a need. Letting a baby "cry herself back to sleep" for more than a few minutes is, in the mind of this author at least, unspeakably horrible. On the other hand, if you took her out of her crib, turned on all the lights, put on a "Blue's Clues" video, and danced around to disco music, then you may have engendered unrealistic wants going forward. These wants may never be equaled or appeased. The "right answer," as we used to say in the mathematics classroom, is to cuddle the baby and help her come to understand that three in the morning is time for sleepy-bye. Maybe you can't teach common sense, but I'm recommending this moderate course none-the-less.
Your eight-month-old may want to get up and hang out in the wee hours, but what she needs is to move in the direction of appreciating that there are other people in the world and that some of those people of the parental persuasion would like to get some sleep for the first time since going to the hospital as two people and coming home as three. She wants to party. But what she needs is to get a cuddle and back to sleep.
What to do if your adolescent child is asking for that which is, in your sophisticated parental judgment, completely unreasonable? "No" is a powerful, if concise, sentence. There is a great deal to be said for "no." But as always, there has to be a "yes" to balance the voluminous "no." "Can I go out on a boat until three in the morning, smoke pot, and have unprotected sex with strangers?" "No. Would you like to invite some friends over? We could make dinner together and watch a movie." Making dinner together with the kids and watching a movie is an awesome "yes."
Here's the big finish: In my experience counseling families for getting on 40 years now, there are two ways to get to the horrible place of a child thinking about going out on a boat, smoking pot, and having unprotected sex. One way is by giving in to her every want along the way. Why wouldn't she want more and more? How would she learn to moderate her desires if every absurd request has been granted year after year? From a disco party at eight months to a boat is not such a big step. But the other way to get to the bad place in the relationship is by ignoring the legitimate needs. If your child doesn't feel she can count on you to be there for her and help her feel safe, then why wouldn't she ask for that which is absurd? A baby who didn't get cuddled and reassured when she cried could certainly grow up not to care what her parents think about her going out on a boat.
Moderation is one answer. Hanging out with your kids, "being there" in every sense of the phrase is another. Because if you don't have the kind of relationship where you can make dinner with your kids and watch a movie with their friends, then there is a boat waiting. And it's not a boat you want your kids to be on.

4 thoughts on “Wants Versus Needs

  1. Ilaria

    Just brilliant! and by the way, I have a 15th year old girl….maybe she is not super crazy about watching TV w mom and dad and her friends…. but certainly she does not even think about asking to go out in the boat until 3 and blah, blah, she knows better then that. Her dad and I have always done our best to satisfy her needs and analyze her wants.

    I love to read your blogs, you make so much sense to me!!

    Reply
  2. Martin

    Good column. Nice read. I like your voice… sensible without the not-quite-truthful hyperbole.

    I understand the “No” of 3am unprotected sex with questionable acquaintances. But, to paraphrase
    Groucho, “Why a boat?” Boats are good places to be. Especially sailboats. Especially when sailing.
    As dens of iniquity tied up at the dock in the dark, I will agree, not so much. A kid can learn a lot
    while sailing. Especially sitting in the cockpit with one hand on the tiller looking out at the water or
    up checking the set of the sails… Very romantic. But yes, in the cockpit and not down in the cabin
    on the V-berth.

    You make a lot of sense and it’s a pleasure to read these missals.

    Reply

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