Needs, Wants

Toys. Treats.  Outings. Parties.  As a child, there were a great many things that I desired with a powerful intensity. So I would ask my mom.  Sometimes she would say yes, but generally the answer was no. As an adult, I am grateful that she did not give me everything I wanted all the time. But this was, of course, cruelty and injustice to my child brain.  “But mom!” I would beg, “I need it!”  And, almost every time, she would respond predictably “You don’t need it, you want it.”  

What she meant, of course, was that my physical survival was absolutely not dependent on the ‘thing’ that I was asking for.  Needing = require, wanting = desire. And she was correct in every case. In that sense, there are only a handful of things that we actually need.  Our survival depends on air, and adequate shelter.  We occasionally ‘need’ medical intervention.  And water. And food.

But the food example is an interesting one.  We don’t need apples.  Or bread. Or peanut butter.  Or lemonade. Or hamburgers. Or lettuce.  If we go down the entire list of individual food choices, we would not find a single one that, on its own, is absolutely required for our survival.  But food as a category is certainly a real need.  We don’t need everything on the list, or any specific individual item from the list, but we must eat something.

Now, thanks to social and psychological research, we have a bit more understanding about what human beings need in order to survive, and thrive. We all have the basic physiological needs that my mom was referring to when she told me that I didn’t ‘need’ the toy, but our health and well-being actually depend on a lot more than that. If we’re going to set a goal post farther than our immediate survival, there are a lot more needs to consider.  These are real ‘needs’, and our mental health and physical wellbeing are determined by how well we are able to find ways to meet them. The most comprehensive list of needs I’ve found so far can be found here:  This list is from a book called “Nonviolent Communication” by Marshall Rosenberg.  I cannot recommend his book highly enough. It was a game-changer for me.

My training on educating and caring for children was heavily focused on the process of recognizing and finding ways to meet the broad range of needs that children all have.  The punishment-free discipline method we learned is entirely based on one single concept:  All behavior is driven by needs.  By extension, all challenging or unacceptable behavior is driven by needs.  If we can recognize the need behind the behavior, and help the child find an acceptable way to meet the need, then the behavior will stop on its own.  (It’s a tad more complicated than that, but that’s the central concept)

The needs we experience are real, but in every case, there are a multitude of different ways we can go about meeting our needs, just as there are a great many foods that will sate our hunger. Most of us, including me, are not very skilled at recognizing the needs that are driving our various behaviors and desires.  Improving my ability to recognize my own core needs, as well as the needs of Cat and other children that I work with is currently one of the primary focuses of my life at the moment. There’s a lot of guesswork and trial and error involved in this process, but so far it’s been very well worth it.

The needs that Cat expresses on a daily basis include things like hunger, play, movement/exercise, independence, and space. Above all, she needs connection, empathy and community.  I am constantly trying to look past her actions and words, to find the need that is driving them. She does not calmly inform me that she is feeling a need for exercise or movement.  She charges around the house and climbs on things. She does not tell me she is feeling an increased need for autonomy and independence, she experiments with doing the opposite of what she knows I want her to do.  

I want her to learn the difference between wants and needs, just as my mom did with me.  Knowing more, my approach is a bit different than my mom’s was.  When Cat demands a specific activity or toy, we talk about why she wants it so badly.  We talk about the needs that are driving the desire.  And we find a way to meet those needs that is acceptable to both of us. Perhaps Cat wants novelty. The new toy would provide that, but we have plenty of toys already. So we get a toy down that she hasn’t seen in awhile.  Perhaps she wants the connection that the ad on TV promised, so we play a favorite game or read a book. She is an only child who homeschools, so the need for friends and community crops up a lot. When she starts asking to visit her cousins more often than is feasible, I know it’s time to find a class or community group for her to join, or invite some local friends to come and play.   

Constantly monitoring and finding ways of responding to Cat’s needs takes time and effort.  But as Cat is getting better at identifying her own needs, and learning a variety of appropriate ways to meet them, the process is getting easier and easier.   And the outcome is so, so worth the effort. When her needs are met, we don’t really have any behavior problems.  And Cat turns into a learning machine. She seeks out activities and investigations that challenge her at exactly the right level.  I make sure she has adequate resources and materials, but beyond that, as long as Cat’s needs are met, her academic progress takes care of itself, at a pace I could not match if I was planning the lessons and taking charge.   Technically, of course, the challenges and learning she seeks out are actually part of how Cat is meeting her own needs of growth, learning, understanding, purpose, play, and many more.  

The needs of my husband and I are also of critical importance, and Cat is expected to show our needs the same consideration and courtesy that we show for hers.  We put a lot of effort into working together to make sure everybody’s needs are met. Sometimes it’s a struggle. Sometimes it feels like a balancing act. But most of the time, with most of our needs met, we live a life of peace, joy and learning.


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