“What are skillful ways to respond to the wants of our children?”

I’ve discussed previously how the motivated pursuit of goals, the territory of wanting, is a defining characteristic of human beings. The time that we learn the most about wanting is in childhood. Parents profoundly influence the skills their children develop with getting what they want, the experiences and expectations they have around wanting, and the fundamental values and aims their children acquire. Therefore, skillfully responding to child wants are the foundation of a lifetime of success and satisfaction with our wishes, hopes, and dreams.

By the way, most comments here about children also apply to how partners respond to the wants of each other! You may want to read this column first with reference to your kids, and then a second time with reference to your partnership or other important relationships.

The Wrong Way

Let me begin with an example of how not to respond to the wants of children. In my doctoral research, I videotaped parents and toddlers doing various things, including making a batch of cookies. What follows is one episode:

Intent on the recipe, the mother plucked the small wooden spoon her son was happily holding out of his hand to stir the dough. Startled, he reached out for the spoon and began vocalizing, at first softly then insistently. She ignored him, set the spoon down just out of his reach, and began sifting flour. He got louder and louder, his fingers stretching for the spoon. No response from his mother, busy with her task. He began to cry and slam his back into his high chair over and over. Ten, twenty seconds passed, and the boy grew more disorganized and frantic.

Finally, the mother looked up from the bowl and focused on her son. “Uh, what do you want?” she asked with mild surprise. He looked at her and with a visible effort pulled himself together and clearly gestured at the spoon with a rising “Annnhh!” But in the two seconds it took for him to signal his wish, she shifted her attention back to the cookies and ignored her son. He slammed back in his chair one last time and sat there mute and limp, his face slack and wet with tears, staring at his mother, who was busy measuring nutmeg.

What We Do Matters More Than What We Say

On first impression, this seemed like a warm and caring mother. She sincerely loved her two children, and worked hard to create a nice home. Nonetheless, the bottom line of her actual behavior in numerous interactions—her walk, not her talk—was that she was typically inattentive to or confused about her child’s wants, disrespectful of his wishes, and unresponsive when he needed her help. (By the way, large discrepancies between parents’ words and deeds can be especially crazy-making to children.) Actions count most.

If you could do “instant replay” on your interactions with your children around their wants, what would you see that you are actually doing? Do you want to make any changes?

If you have the means, it is remarkably instructive to videotape some interactions with your children, especially young ones, and then review the tape with a licensed professional. This can be helpful with all children, but particularly so if your interactions with your child have conflicts or if you feel like your child is hard to read.

Repeated Patterns of Responding

Single interactions with a child are usually not very influential, unless they are abusive. What matters most is the parents’ overall, repeated style of responding to their child’s wants, enacted in literally hundreds of little interactions each day.

Basically, parents can respond to a child’s wants in one of three ways. First, they can allow or assist their child to get what she wants. Second, they can thwart or fail to assist the child in getting what he wants. Third, parents may both stop the child from fulfilling her original want (through active interference or passive non-assistance) and then offer an attractive alternative.

Truly, what percentage of your daily interactions with your children fall into each of these categories? It’s a sobering question for many of us, including myself! As a ballpark estimate, I feel that roughly 90% or more of interactions with children, especially young ones, should be in the first and third categories.

Lots of Wants

At any moment, children (and grownups) are usually pursuing multiple goals. For example, consider a one-year-old boy, playing with his mother in the bathtub, who picks up a toy, turns to her smiling, and says ‘Unh-Unhhh’ with a rising inflection while raising the toy toward her. In this two-second episode, the child appears to have multiple wants for his mother to take the toy, do something with it, share a moment of warmth, and continue to interact with him.

Some wants are specific, such as the appeal for a pick-up (in the parent’s arms – or perhaps with a teenager, in the garage!). Others are more global, such as a longing for warmth and love. Some are fleeting and situation-specific, while others are more enduring.

Some will be clearly signaled – “Waaaahhhhhh!” – while others will be merely implicit in the child’s current state, such as a toddler bouncing off the walls for lack of food or a glum fourth-grader who reveals a falling out with a best friend. Some wants will even be deliberately masked or communicated as the opposite of what is truly desired, such as with the child who hides in order to be found.

Reading signals

So here we have the basic child/parent situation: A vulnerable, dependent youngster with an ongoing, bubbling eruption of multiple needs and desires – and a caring adult who can respond to some with tolerance or assistance, to some with restriction or refusal, and to others with redirection down better channels.

My wife and I jokingly termed our first child “the mobile desire unit.” Kids continually pitch their wants our way, and we need to make thousands of split-second decisions each day as to which we will hit back into play, which we will catch and hold on to, and which we will put a different spin on.

In order for parents to make good choices in their responses to child wants, they need to have a fairly good idea about what those wants are. The problem is that it is often challenging to understand your child’s wants, whether he is a toddler or a teenager.

How do you figure out what your child needs and wants, especially at those times that are most intense and confusing – and important? How can you see past the surface froth of desires to the deeper, more important wants? I’ll explore these and other questions in my next columns on reading your child’s wants and overall state.

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.