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“I’d do anything, for you, dear, anything, for you mean everything to me….”

This is what Artful Dodger sings to little Nancy in the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! It also might be the tune you sing to your own child. We love our kids. Our love has no limit. But our pocketbooks do.

Even so, many parents go into debt over things their children want that don’t qualify as needs. Now is a good time to remind ourselves of the difference and to strengthen our resolve to know when to say “no.”

Understanding the distinction between wants and needs is not something kids are good at. A two-year-old needs a cookie before dinner. Just ask him! A nine-year-old needs a new package of Pokemon cards. A thirteen year old needs a cell phone with an unlimited data plan. These needs are strongly felt and kids can be very persuasive. Denying our children what they want and what they believe they need just feels wrong. It’s unpleasant. Many times it is just easier and quieter to give in.

But giving in gives the wrong impression. Even if we can afford everything our children wish for, it’s important to show some restraint. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Children must be able to evaluate their own impulses and develop some self-control. If not at home, with you, where will they learn this? The child who believes that everything has its price and everyone can be bought is not an asset to society.
  2. Making choices about what to buy or what to ask for is more important to a child’s development than being able to buy or receive everything imaginable. Evaluating, planning, and even saving, develop a child’s brain capacity for all sorts of decisions down the road.
  3. Being part of the family “team” is an important part of children’s self-concept, more than being the one the whole family revolves around. It’s a good thing for children to notice that others in the family have needs and wishes too and that sometimes others’ desires will come before their own. Not always, but sometimes.
  4. Giving children something while denying ourselves everything eventually leads to resentment, guilt, and anger. It’s unfair to the child, really, to let her get used to having her own way, only to tell her later that she’s too old for all that. It’s not going to be her fault that she’s spoiled but you might be inclined to blame her nonetheless.
  5. Instead of always supplying your child’s every want, give her an allowance so she can make her own spending and saving decisions. Doing this provides her with an appreciation of the value of things, helps her grow in responsibility and planning, and makes her feel independent and empowered.
  6. If your child wants something you approve that is way beyond his means, insist he contribute some portion of the price, even if it’s just a small amount, or contribute an “in kind” contribution of chores. Having some “skin in the game” helps him be a partner in the investment and feel grown up, instead being and feeling dependent on you.

This is not to say that we can never indulge our children’s desires or that everything we give our kids has to fulfill a true need. Buying our kids stuff that lights up their eyes is fun and makes us happy too.

But overdoing the gift-giving and encouraging children to create wish lists that are unreasonable do no one any favors. If you find yourself maxing your credit cards for children’s holidays, there’s something wrong in the equation. But it’s not really about the money. It’s about the values.

Value your children in incalculable ways.



© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Dr. Anderson will be in Atlanta, GA on December 10 and 11, speaking at the National Head Start Association’s Parent Conference. Email her at [email protected] for details or to set up a presentation to your group in the Atlanta area on one of those dates.