Focusing on Children’s Needs

toddler boy and chimpanzee stare into distance

Parenting is the ultimate game of "monkey see, monkey do." When we respond with sensitivity to our children, so too, will they respond with sensitivity to others.

Mind Your Manners

My son recently received two books with “object lessons” on manners. Both books begin with the “antagonist,” a sweet little elephant who is about 4 or 5 years old, expressing a need. They follow the same basic storyline.

In “Excuse Me!,” the elephant is lonely because she does not have anyone to play with. She thinks to herself, “I’ll go ask Mom what to do.” She approaches her mother (who is visiting with a neighbor) with her need: “Mom, I want to whisper something to you.” The mother ignores her and “just keeps talking to Mrs. Phant.” The little elephant persists: “Mom, it’s VERY important!” The mother shushes her daughter.

In “Remember the Magic Word,” the elephant’s tummy is rumbling. She says “I think I need a snack, I’ll go and tell Mom.” She approaches her mother (who is cooking in the kitchen) with her need: “I want some peanuts.” Mom doesn’t move. The elephant expresses her need again, but louder. Mom continues to ignore her.

After both of these exchanges, there are several pages of the little elephant wondering why she is being ignored. A light bulb moment happens in each, and the elephant realizes that she was not being polite. In “Excuse Me!” she tries again but says “excuse me,” and in “Remember the Magic Word” she asks for peanuts please. Finally, the mother acknowledges her need and responds.

I hate those books.

Object Lessons

In the scheme of things, I suppose a mother ignoring her child to “teach her a lesson” isn’t that bad. But what else is that teaching her? I can think of a few things:

  • The child’s needs are not as important as the perception of manners.
  • The child’s needs will be ignored at the adult’s whim.
  • The child is not good enough for a response.
  • If someone is not addressing you properly, ignoring that person is an acceptable response.

Focus on Needs, Not Behavior

I recently read Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids (a book I recommend). In the book, the authors encourage parents to think about the child’s needs behind the behavior. All behavior is based on a need, for adults and children. Think about it:

  • When you are tired, you get grumpy if you can’t sleep.
  • When you are hungry, you get distracted if you can’t eat.
  • When you are frustrated or angry, you may be short-tempered or brusque with your children or spouse.

Solving the root of the problem – the tiredness, hunger, frustration, or anger – will do more to impact the resultant behavior than addressing the behavior itself. For example:

  • If your child is tired and is having one meltdown after another, is it more effective to gently help him to bed or to spank him for his latest tantrum?
  • If your child is hungry and is consequently unable to concentrate on whatever task you put in front of her, is it more effective to get her a snack or to shame her for her inattention?
  • If your child is frustrated with an inability to do something that he is not developmentally able to do, is it more effective to offer your compassionate help or to put him in timeout for his failure?

The authors remind us that no matter how crazy your child’s actions may seem to you, from tugging on your pant leg to yelling, all that your child is trying to do at that moment is fulfill a need – a need you occasionally have, too.

Is the need for your attention? For consideration, choice, or autonomy? Think about how you would like someone to respond to you when you have the same need.

Your child will probably not try to meet his need in the same way you would, and that’s ok. Your child is not at the same developmental level as you.

Your child’s attempts to meet her need may frustrate or annoy you, but take a breath – try to stay patient. You will have the best chance of connecting with him – and also of helping him find a better way – if you recognize the need he’s sincerely trying to meet at that moment.1

How have you respectfully listened to and met your child’s needs lately?

  1. Hart, Sura & Hodson, Victoria, Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids: 7 Keys to Turn Family Conflict into Cooperation at Ch. 1

About The Author: Dionna

Code Name: Mama CodeNameMama My NPN Posts

Dionna is co-founder of Natural Parents Network. She blogs about natural parenting and life with a toddler-almost-preschooler at Code Name: Mama. She also co-founded, a site dedicated to normalizing breastfeeding anytime, anywhere.

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