permissive parenting

What Children Want and What They Need: Determining the Difference and Acting On It

There is a big difference between what a child WANTS and what they NEED.

Even as adults we often fail to see this distinction in our own lives and in our own choices. We go shopping. We see a nice sweater. “Gosh, I really need that sweater. I don’t have a sweater in that particular shade of green.” Is it really a need, though, or is it a want?

Most likely it’s a want.

If it is a want, and you’re trying to save money, the test of asking yourself if it is a need or a want can help you to make better choices.

With children it is the same, yet different. Developmentally children live in the here and now. They want what they want and they want it now. Their brains are still maturing and they have difficulty planning and seeing the potential consequences of the choices they make. Unlike adults, who can self reflect, children are not able to see the difference between wanting and needing.

Because of this, it is often left to the parent or guardian to decide for them, and in doing so, to model the process of making sound decisions, regardless of the child’s immediate desires.

In addition, a child’s desire for something is often confused with a need, both by child and parent. Just as a parent might ask themselves if what they are desiring is a need or a want, so do they need to examine the desire of the child and decide if it is a need or a want. For children, all wants are needs in their minds; however in reality, only a fraction of the wants are actually going to serve the purpose of meeting their needs. This is where frustation builds in children. They believe that the things they want will help them to meet their needs. But they won’t.

I recently overheard a conversation between a father and the mother of his three year old daughter. It went something like this:

Mother: “When you go to swimming lessons with our daughter, you need to stay inside the pool area during the entire lesson.”

Father: “That’s what I do.”

Mother: “Well, the lifeguard told me that you were outside in the main lobby last week.”

Father: “That’s what she wanted me to do.”

Mother: (surprised) “The lifeguard wanted you to go outside?”

Father: (scoffing): “No, our daughter did. She wanted me to go outside.”

Mother: “Well, you probably shouldn’t be listening to her about what to do during the lesson.”


This exchange demonstrates a man who is confusing his child’s wants for her needs and responding to the judgment of a young child. The father was demonstrating the tendency of a lenient parent in which the three year old is the decision maker.

Although it may seem like a minor point, this small incident is indicative of a much greater issue.

A parent should not be listening first and foremost to a three year old for guidance on what NEEDS to be done. First of all, a three year old is not capable of making a higher level decision such as where a parent should be during her swimming lesson. She may THINK that she wants him to be outside, but that could be for many reasons. Maybe he went outside the last time she had a lesson and she remembered that…In any case, what she wants in the moment may be very different from what she needs in the moment.

Despite the fact that she wants him to sit in a spot that is further away from the lesson area, what she needs is for her father to be close to her and to watch her during her lesson. She may not be able to express it, but she needs his presence during her swim lessons.Even more importantly, what she needs is for her father to figure out what his daughter needs, not for him to respond to what she wants simply because she wants it.  It is his job as a parent to determine what his child needs even if it contradicts what she wants.

The inability to stand firm on denying a child of instant gratification for each want that arises is typical of a parenting style termed “permissive.”

The Permissive parenting style is defined by the parent’s difficulty in saying no to his or her child and in his tendency to give in to the desires of the child in order to maintain harmony in the family.

Denying the Child of the Want: Why Saying No is Important

Saying no to a child is difficult; it can cause strife. But it is necessary. Children need to hear the word no in order to learn the boundaries of the family and expectations for their behavior. (For more on this read David Walsh’s book “NO: Why Kids – of All Ages – Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It.”)

Children need to have limits set for them. They need for parents to make the right choices for them, especially at a young age, and for parents to give them choices that allow them to make positive decisions or to suffer the consequences of not making positive decisions. And sometimes they need for parents to determine and act on the need even if it goes against the want.

Children of overly permissive parents (i.e., parents who give in to their children too much and don’t set firm enough boundaries) tend to be much more anxious later in life and to be “impulsive, aggressive, and lacking in independence and in personal responsibility.”

Why are children more anxious? Why do they lack personal responsibility? Because they don’t know where the boundaries are and they haven’t been held to high standards of behavior.

They end up being in charge when they shouldn’t be in charge. They end up directing the actions of the family and this causes anxiety.

Why does it cause anxiety? Because they are testing the limits and aren’t finding any.

Children want and need to hear the word no so that they know where the line is that shouldn’t be crossed. Dr. Walsh calls it setting limits with love. He states that it is the child’s job to push the boundaries and the parents’ job to be firm in keeping the boundaries set.

Some basic examples of immediate wants versus long term needs:

I want to stay up and watch this movie.
You need to sleep. The movie sounds like fun but sleep is important.

I want ice cream.
You need to eat healthy foods. Ice cream is not an option simply because you want it.

I want to push my plate away when I’m done eating.
You need to learn respectful behavior and I will show you how that is done.

I want to demand something from you.
You need to learn to ask politely.

Some of the NEEDS and WANTS are more difficult to decipher. We as their caregivers need to learn their cues. Sometimes this means holding off on the automatic “no” and reflecting back what is really going on.

I need that toy and I need it now.
I understand that you want that toy. You really like playing with your toys and it’s hard to stop. It looks to me like you need a hug and a snuggle because you’re tired.

I want to watch TV with you.
I hear you. You’d like to watch TV with mama. But it’s night time and it’s time to get some sleep. Let’s sit and read a book and get you ready for bed.

I want that train. It’s mine. He took it!
Of course you want that train. Why wouldn’t you want that train? It’s a great train. I can see you’re really excited. But let’s go over here and talk about it. (What he really needs is to be taken out of the room. He has become overstimulated and needs a moment to decompress.)

I want UP!
You want mama to pick you up. You’re tired. You need to get ready for bed.

When your child is acting out, take a few minutes to figure out what the need of your child is in that moment.

Does your child simply need to be told what to do because there are too many choices?

Does your child need to be removed from an overstimulating environment?

Or does your child need to be given assistance by offering two healthy choices and allowing them to choose? (Example: Your child is getting up and running around during meal time. You ask your child: “You can sit next to me quietly with your feet on the floor or you can sit in your chair? Which do you prefer?)

Remember, you are the adult with the higher reasoning power. Find creative ways to help your child make good choices and when your child is not capable of doing that, then help the child to make the right choice.

The other day I got on the bus in New York City with my three year old daughter. A nanny was standing next to a boy of about the same age as my daughter. As the bus was beginning to move, we were still getting on. He had both of his hands on the pole for balance. When my daughter approached the pole, he refused to move. His nanny told him to let her hold on to but he sassed back to her and wouldn’t budge. For the safety of my daughter and as a lesson to him, I swiftly took one his hands and removed it from the bar. I said to him, “That is not an option. You need to let her hold on.” In this nanny-child dynamic the child was in charge. The nanny had lost control with this child, most like because she did not follow through with her directions on previous occasions. Children learn and they learn fast. This child had learned that he could be in charge.

Saying no. Finding out what the need is rather than giving into or arguing with the want. Helping your children to make sound choices. Teaching your child to have respect for you and your authority, balanced by freedom within limits. These are the keys to raising a successful and healthy child.