As a response to my last blog-post on parenting, someone asked me, ”How do we explain the difference between needs and wants to children?” Tough question. Most of us are grappling with this problem ourselves. But it is a legitimate one. If you start giving in to the indiscriminate demands of a child, there is no stopping. There will be a point where you must stop eventually unless you are one of the wealthiest persons around.
In my parenting experience with our own children and the ones I have seen in the family or outside, whether you stop at meeting demand no. 3 or demand no.10, there is equal amount of heartburn. What is given to the child is quickly brushed aside and he is already making ground for the next demand. We adults are very similar unless we make conscious efforts to enjoy what we have. The moment I published my book – Happiness is All We Want! and I shared the news with people around me, many of them asked, ”What next?” My response is,” Let me enjoy the feeling for some time and work on making this book reach more people.”
Another thing that we need to understand while tackling this issue is that the dividing line between needs and wants is a fluid one. This line changes from one strata of society to another. It even changes for the same person over time. I remember telling my wife immediately after our marriage that I wanted minimal furniture in the house. My idea of the home was my hostel room multiplied three times. I didn’t feel any need for things like dressing table, sofas, centre table and so on. If I could live for nine years in hostels and hostel-like conditions, then why change now? This is a stark contrast to our home now which is filled with furniture, most of it needed of course.
A car is another prime example. A colleague told me recently that he desperately ‘needed’ to buy a Mercedes. So, naturally I said, “buying a Mercedes can hardly be a need, more likely you want to buy one.” His frustrated response was,” I don’t want to spend a bomb on a car. My three year old Toyota is working just fine but in last one year my younger brother, couple of close friends and many colleagues have bought Merc’s, BMW’s and Audi’s. I feel suffocated due to peer pressure and hence need to buy one asap.”
Our children are going through similar issues. The younger children in the age-group 3 – 6 are likely to insist on demands due to the natural human desires of wanting more, newer and bigger stuff. While the older kids have the added complication of social or peer pressure. Exposure to media and internet compounds the problem. Here, I outline few pointers on analyzing and tackling this question in parenting:
Understand the Difference Yourself
Even before you start reacting to a new demand by the child, take a step back and understand yourself whether a new demand falls in the category of needs or wants. Don’t compare the situation to “when I was a child”. First, you don’t even remember most of when you were a child. Will be good to ask your parents or older relatives about your own behavior when you were a child. Time has changed and with it the standards and norms.
Look around in Your Social Circle
Find out what’s happening in your social circle. How are parents responding to this particular demand from the child? I am not suggesting that if everyone is allowing something, you also need to do it. But it will help you understand the social angle better. In few things, we have taken a call to go against the social norm but in few we have been more aligned. For example, we still haven’t provided individual smartphones to our children aged 10 and 12 but we do allow limited access to few games and entertainment apps for a fixed time period everyday.
The Peer Group Defines the Needs
As I mentioned earlier, if you belong to a particular strata of society, you cannot expect your child to live a lower standard of living as defined by the toys, gadgets, clothes, holidays and other accessories. If you have decided to stay in a particular social set-up, you have no choice but to abide by the standards set by others. Keeping your child very deficient in the name of teaching the difference between needs and wants can lead to development of an inferiority complex. As one friend shared with me,” When I was a college student, my father didn’t buy me a bike. Living in a small city, a bike was norm for students and I was made fun of as I travelled in a rickshaw. It took me few years of working and buying a big car to get over that inferiority complex.” However, you need not be a front-runner in the child’s standard of living. A good way is to trail the front-runners by a healthy margin.
How to Define the Healthy Margin
This is entirely your judgment. You just want to yield to enough demands so as not to cause severe stress to the child and avoid the full-blown inferiority complex. For some people, it is important for themselves that their child’s all demands should be met. Such parents are front-runners and trigger demands by other children. Others like my wife and I are laggards. We take time to digest the demands, evaluate how important it is and try our best to fulfill the ones that in the child’s best interests.
Communicate with the Child
The answer to a demand need not be simple yes or no. At our home, most of the time we end up asking lots of questions in response to any demand. Why does the child need something, what’s the actual use, is it a short-term fad, is it going to affect the health of the child, is it completely indispensable? In all cases, the child’s mind is fixated on the stuff and all kinds of sales pitch is provided. A healthy discussion is needed to convince either party. In the end if we say no, the child should at least be explained – why? Even though on surface, you will see the signs of displeasure, even tears, they will ultimately understand if you are convinced. One child visiting us asked my daughter about our single iPad,” so, is this your iPad or your father’s?” While my son was starting to feel the pressure, my daughter quipped,”This is our family iPad and we don’t waste money on gadgets”. The other child instantly knew that she had a point.
Keep Talking – A Parenting Need
Even if you feel you had a great conversation on a particular demand and the issue is over, it still keeps on lingering the child’s mind. So, you need to keep a tab on what’s going on in the child’s mind. If needed, have a follow-up discussion. Keep these discussions natural and broach the topic without making it look like a targeted conversation.
Children are Super-Intelligent
This is a big parenting challenge. A child has innate ability to understand what his parents can or cannot afford. The child also knows how to and whom to pitch a demand. So draft your excuse well. Flimsy reasons and excuses fall flat on their face and the child knows that you are saying no for the sake of saying no and that causes genuine hurt. When to Say No to Kids?
Buy the Good Enough Stuff
I believe in buying the best I can afford for myself but when it comes to children, there is no need to go for the most expensive brand right away. For one, their taste and size varies much more than ours. Second, We need to establish the kids’ genuine interest in what we are buying. Our kids started learning Guitar recently. The choice was between buying a top end Yamaha guitar or a good enough brand for starters. We chose the latter. If the kids show interest and promise to develop this hobby seriously, we can always buy the high-end guitar couple of years later. But if they were to chick this hobby in six months, we won’t regret spending a packet on the top-end guitar. Just look at Quikr or OLX to see how many people are discarding high-end stuff they bought for life.
Expose the Child to a Variety of Experiences
As a parent, it is your duty to expose the child to experiences of other strata of society, specially lower than your level. Giving a tour of village houses, slums, crowded railway stations, crammed public transport busses, orphanages, hospitals, schools for special children etc can help the child appreciate what he or she has in terms of their own health and possessions. Volunteering for social work with children is a very good parenting practice.
Feel free to leave your comments or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A seeker and explorer in the quest for lasting happiness, health and well-being. An MBA from XLRI Jamshedpur and a Mechanical Engineer from IIT Delhi. Has been a senior banker with large global banks like Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and ANZ Bank. Working in these demanding global institutions with a gruelling schedule and plenty of business travel. Was fortunate to realise the importance of health and wellbeing early on. Learnt and practiced many wellbeing tools and techniques to focus on his own well-being while balancing the demands of a high-profile career and a lovely family.