“How can we figure out what our children want?”

A child’s – or grownup’s – wants usually follow a particular path through time that I call an ‘arc of desire.’ Figuring out what a child wants requires understanding that whole arc.

Skill with wanting, which helps enormously both parenting and marriages, involves competence with the entire arc in all its aspects. You might use the model presented here to consider your own wanting and how you respond to the wants of your children.

A trajectory of desire

Imagine a preschooler who starts to notice two classmates playing dress up across the room. She watches casually for a moment, glancing also at other alternatives in the classroom. Then an expression of interest and focus settles on her face. She gets up, walks over, indicates her desire to play, and joins in with increasing excitement and activity. After a while, the interaction winds down as the girls exhaust the possibilities of dress up, and our preschooler returns her scarves to the box. She pauses quietly and looks around, her face relaxed and attentive, poised between desire fulfilled and desire not yet awakened.

Or imagine a teenage boy who first hears of the homecoming dance next month. There’s a girl he wants to go with and he sweats it out for a couple of weeks, trying to read her signals, tossing it around in his head, mumbling about it with friends, disguising both his interest and his fear, before he finally asks her. She says yes and he’s jolted with excitement. They make plans, coordinate with friends, and arrange for a car. The big night comes, they dance with energy, chatter at a coffee shop, and kiss on the doorstep until her dad coughs loudly and opens the front door. He drives home and falls asleep deeply satisfied.

The phases of wanting

In each example, there is an arc of desire, a trajectory of goals, action, and release (please see figure). The time frames varied but the arc was the same. First, a wish formed, known initially only to the wisher. Second, a choice was made to act on the wish and doing began. Third, action accomplished its aim and subsided, desire fulfilled.

The depths and the light

Let me offer an analogy to the arc of desire. Imagine you are in a boat watching a dolphin below. The fish spots you, accelerates, breaks above the water, and soars through the air. At the crest of its flight it seems to hover for a moment and then curves back into the sea, foam in its wake.

Before and after its jump into our shared world, in the swirling depths, the fish is hard to make out. You see it clearly only when it surges into sunlight. And from its airborne trajectory you can infer something of its path before its leap into light and where it will shortly go after returning to the dark sea.

The first phase of GOALS

The first phase of the arc of desire, goals, contains five steps. First, there needs to be the awareness of possibility, whether it’s friends playing dress-up or a potential date. Second, a wish emerges, light and detached, mostly mental and fanciful, with a feeling tone like ‘that would be nice.’ Next, the wish solidifies into a want, which is more realistic, deeper in the guts, with a tone of ‘that’s for me.’

‘Wishing’ is idly fantasizing about some tycoon’s gold-plated yacht on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, while ‘wanting’ is staring at a sweet 18-foot sailboat for sale, your arms tensed as if holding the wheel while your mind tries to figure out how to pay for the darn thing.

Fourth, as you move out of ‘maybe I will, maybe I won’t,’ into ‘I’m gonna do it,’ wanting focuses into intention, a firm resolve to make something happen for real. Finally, the ultimate expression of intention is commitment, in which we are unreservedly, completely, and relentlessly dedicated to our goal.

Each step is like a room in your mind, leading one to the next, with a door in between which you control.

‘Possibilities’ is nearly infinite in scope, containing everything you know about. ‘Wishes’ is smaller but still a vast warehouse with all that might ever tickle your fancy. Among many things, this room could hold a kitchen remodel, yellow daffodils on your dresser, the smell of bacon and woodsmoke, a winning Lotto ticket, a red Porsche, a black diamond run at Squaw, those pumps you saw at Nordstroms, your grown-up child with a Nobel prize, or a note of apology from your mother-in-law (!).

Most of the contents of ‘Wishes’ will not be allowed into ‘Wants.’ Even fewer items will pass the threshold from ‘Wants’ to ‘Intentions.’ Only the most important of all will make it into ‘Commitments.’

Room for desire

What makes one civilized and trustworthy is one’s control over the doors between rooms. That is what gives us the great benefits of not suppressing our wishes into unconsciousness and letting our imagination run free. It is healthy and positive for your ‘wishes room’ to be enormous and contain many desires that will not and should not ever see the light of day.

‘Wishes’ are not ‘wants,’ nor do ‘wants’ equal ‘commitments’! Too often mere wishes alarm us, like a snake across the road spooking a horse. It’s just a wish — no big deal. The thought is not the deed.

Spouses – and parents – can jump too quickly to scold, shame, and squelch the wishes wants of others. Often we see a troubling one coming and launch a preemptive strike! It’s good to grant your mate, or children, the respect and autonomy to handle their wishes and wants on their own, including the frustration of not being able to move them to intentions. Whether it’s you or others, perhaps focus on supple, nuanced, effective control of the doors between rooms of desire and treat wishes and wants mainly with tolerance and humor.

The second phase of ACTION

This is the phase of competent doing. It includes making plans, gathering resources, getting help from others, effective effort, using feedback, and staying determined. During this phase our wanting is most activated, engaged with the world, and public. Much of childhood is about acquiring skills within this phase.

The third phase of RELEASE

In this phase we release desire, either because action has succeeded or because we judge that our aims can not or should not be fulfilled. In the first case, if our actions have worked well, we experience satisfaction. In the second case, if we must let the want go, we may gripe for a bit but hopefully eventually release it with wisdom and grace. (Letting go of a want is not the same as repressing it.)

Speed bumps and spinouts

So far I have described the optimal process of wanting. The normal process is not always so smooth.

What are your personal speed bumps – or spinouts – along this arc? (See questions in box.)

For example, some people have great ideas but can’t do much effective about them. Others are skillful doers but set their sights too low. Some are good planners but give up at the first challenge. Others are stubborn to a fault.

Some people work well independently but can’t ask for support. Others are good team players but lack initiative.

It may help to think about this in particular areas. For example, it may be easy to say what you want at work but hard with lovers. Or perhaps you readily let go of failed relationships but hang on to unrealistic fitness goals.

Three common pitfalls

There are three points along the arc of desire that bog down most of us sometime. The first is when we move from private to public wanting. If we fail, it is there for the world to see. Yet without declaring ourselves, we can’t get cooperation from others. Plus we lose the push that open commitment often gives us; the angels smile on those who commit themselves.

The second is the transition from goals to action. It’s easier to daydream than to do. Yet dreams without doing contribute little to our selves, family, or world. (The first and second transitions often go together – a double whammy.)

The third is releasing desire, period. Much of our suffering is caused by misguided attachment to desire.

If our actions have succeeded, it can be hard to enjoy the fruits of our efforts and let desire subside. Some are so driven in their careers that as soon as they accomplish one goal they rush to create another. Others in relationships won’t let it in that they are truly loved and keep pressing for further proofs. If life is a banquet table, many of us merely pick at the wonderful meals we’ve prepared!

If our goals are unattainable or inappropriate, it can be hard to accept that and move on. Examples of this include pressing children to become something they are not, obsessions of various kinds, pouring more money into a failed investment, or not facing the inevitability of aging and death.

A parent’s gift

I think that parents have a great influence on their children’s response to these pitfalls.

If we shame our children’s desires (distinct from exercising reasonable parental control) then they will likely be inhibited at the public expression of their wants. If we thwart their aims excessively or fail to provide appropriate assistance, they are less likely to risk acting on their wants. And if we don’t help them take it in when success is achieved, or let their aims go when necessary, then they may have a hard time following the arc to its conclusion in release.

On the other hand, we can help our children express their wants civilly and bravely, pursue them with skill and determination, and let them go when fulfilled or frustrated. It is hard to think of a greater or more loving gift.

Your Personal Profile with the Arc of Desire

You might consider these questions regarding the wants of yourself, your spouse, and your children – in the areas of parenting, your marriage, and taking good care of yourself.


  • Imaginative about and accepting of wishes and wants?
  • Able to inhibit acting on inappropriate wishes (addictions, hurting others, etc.)?
  • Readily convert appropriate wishes and wants to inentions and commitments?
  • Goals generally balanced between too safe and easy or too wild and unrealistic?
  • Clearly and comfortably express wants?
  • Negotiate wants effectively with others?


  • Put your wants into action?
  • Effective planning?
  • Reasonably determined?
  • Take initiative and work independently?
  • Effective at getting support?
  • Use feedback from others and world?


  • Let in the fulfillment of your aims?
  • Realistic about wants that are inappropriate or unattainable?
  • Able to relax and let go of desire?

* * * * *

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.