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“But I WAAAANT It!” How to Teach Kids the Difference Between Wants & Needs

Photo by MaaHoo Studio / Stocksy United / 1310555
Photo by MaaHoo Studio / Stocksy United

By Cheryl Flanders

How'd the season of gift-giving go in your house? Was your child happy with a couple of presents and full of gratitude? (Note: This is not common.) Or did she create a list a mile long (and then insist she wanted even more)? 

All those wants don’t mean you’ve got a greedy want-ster on your hands. It’s just that very young children don’t have much ability to distinguish between wants and needs. In fact, they see them as the same thing—which explains why, when you deny her yet another Beanie Boo, she might erupt into a fit of epic proportions.

There are good reasons to teach children the difference between wants (items like toys and cake pops that they would like but can live without) and needs (items like healthy food and supplies for school). You’re helping them think critically about the real value of “stuff,” for one, and you’re teaching them about empathy; after all, not all of us have access to the same resources. 

Even after the season of giving, those are lessons that are valuable for any child to carry through life.

So how do you begin to teach the concept of wants versus needs (especially to the child who believes she should have it all)? Take a look:

1. Talk about ways to meet the needs of others.

Young children have no real understanding of a world beyond home and school, so they tend to be very self-focused, or…err…selfish. Start getting him thinking about others by making a list of needs in your neighborhood or community. Do you have an elderly neighbor who needs her leaves raked or her driveway shoveled? Is there a homeless shelter that could use those old coats? Take your young child along with you to perform small acts of selflessness and kindness.

2. Identify wants and needs at the grocery store.

Talk about how you decide what to buy at a grocery store and what to pass up. For example, maybe you grab milk but skip the soda; you buy toothpaste, but not sparkly purple nail polish. Why is one a need and the other a want?

3. Make a family wants and needs list.

Make two columns on a large piece of paper–one for your family’s needs and one for your family’s wants. Write down a few ideas in each column and talk about why warm coats are a need, but that giant blow-up snowman for the yard that your four-year-old is dying to have sits squarely in the “wants” column.

4. Help your child understand that not all needs cost money.

Discuss with your child ways that she could help meet a need without money. Is someone sad and in need of a hug? Is there someone in an elderly care home who needs the encouragement of a simple hand-drawn card or a visit?

5. Discuss how wants and needs extend beyond “things.” 

Maybe your aspiring ballerina is eager to go see The Wizard of Oz at the local community theater, but the performance doesn’t end until 9:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night—way too late to be out when she’s got to be at school bright and early the next day. Take the opportunity to talk with her about how she may really want to see the play, but she needs enough sleep to be able to function well at school.

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