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Listening to What Children Want

By — Hand in Hand
Updated on Mar 17, 2011

A big part of our experience as parents has to do with developing ways to address the deeply felt wants and needs of our children. We deal with wants and needs from our babies' earliest moments through their entry into young adulthood. We have to figure out what our children's real needs are, and what to do when they want things they don't need, or can't have. And we have to deal with our own feelings of sadness, frustration, or anger about how much they need and want. We are dedicated to making life as good as possible for them, but sooner or later we find it hard to be generous when our own needs for rest, reassurance, and resource aren't well met.

Whole books are written about the developmental needs of young children, so this little article won't try to point out the difference between needs and wants at a particular age or stage. Suffice it to say here that children need lots of undivided, warm attention from their parents and others around them. They need to be treated with respect. They need play, lots of room to experiment, and lots of positive response to who they are and what interesting experiments they do. They need information about what's going on around them, from the very beginning--their minds work beautifully, and from early infancy onward, they understand far more language and emotional context than we realize. Even when we meet their needs well, there are moments every single day when our children long for attention or for things we can't give them. When Mommy and Daddy can handle these moments of intense longing gently and with understanding, it makes a huge difference in a child's life.

Feelings of need sometimes persist after the needy moment has passed

Children acquire feelings of need--for attention, for food, for physical closeness, for reassurance that everything is all right--during moments when they are frightened or sad. These moments occur in every child's life, no matter how attentive the parents may be. An example of such a moment might be a baby who is feeling pain from teething, and is hungry. He takes the breast or bottle, only to find that it hurts, so the parents' efforts to help him can't rectify the entire situation. He nurses and cries, nurses and cries, and the parents feel sad or frustrated, wishing they had a magic answer.

Sometimes children experience a big need that isn't filled--the need to feel safe and close and cherished in the days right after birth, for example. When a baby has to be medically treated or separated from his parents for other reasons, he has feelings of need and often fear that aren't addressed by the not-so-personal care of the hospital staff. When baby finally gets back to his parents arms, his present needs are being met at last, but the feelings of need from that earlier, scary time may linger and make him jumpy, unable to sleep well, or given to long crying spells for no apparent reason.

Sometimes a child acquires a collection of feelings from incidents we adults consider uneventful, such as Daddy going to work in the morning, or Mommy abruptly leaving him to answer the phone or help with the older children's homework. In any case, these big and little experiences of need leave packets of feelings that a child then carries along with him until he can heal from the hurt, large or small.

"I need my Mommy" or "I want attention" or "I'm afraid to be more than an arm's length away from my Daddy when he's home" feelings can keep a child from exploring confidently, from making friends, and from noticing that he's safe with trusted relatives or caregivers. Sometimes such feelings hinder a child only under certain circumstances--when he's tired, or when lots of people are around, or when the parents are affectionate with each other. Sometimes such feelings operate most of the time, making it seem like the child is "shy" or "timid" or "selfish." The "feelings of need" signals can become so persistent that they govern the child's personality.

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