I received a comment on facebook suggesting that I write more about identifying our children's needs, particularly how to distinguish surface needs from deeper needs that may be harder to identify. The commenter suggested that sometimes meeting the surface need will exacerbate the deeper need. Here are my thoughts after reflecting on her comments:
How do we know what our children's needs are? When a child is out of sorts or there is disequilibrium in our family how do we discover the root cause, not just the easy answer. How do we know if what our child wants is a new toy or if their focus on shopping is really a way to spend more time with mom or dad? Does she really need new clothes or is she trying to make herself feel better after someone was critical of her body or her sense of style. Is he lashing out at you because he's tired and you said the wrong thing, or is the anger stemming from his frustration at not mastering a new trick on his skateboard? And in the process of figuring out which needs to meet how do we remain respectful of the person our child is? Sometimes in an effort to identify our children's needs we dismiss their experience or who they are, "He's just hungry, he'll be fine when he's had something to eat, that's just how he is." "Oh it's no big deal, she just acts this way when she's tired." "She's missing her friend, but she'll get over it."
And when we are trying to meet our children's needs, what about the times when we are absolutely sure we know what they need better than they do? What should we do then? Our child wakes up in the morning and is irritable and out of sorts. We know that our child is suffering from low blood sugar, having lived through this pattern ourselves and having seen it before in our child. We suggest that she eat something, but she resists. We keep offering different foods, pushing her to eat, telling her that we know that she will feel better (and be a whole lot nicer to be around) if she would just eat something. Our child becomes increasingly irrational, we become increasingly frustrated, and our child refuses to eat.
What about when your child has been invited to play with a friend but she says she doesn't want to play. You are sure that if your child got up off the couch and went to the friend's house she would have fun. You are absolutely certain that your child needs to socialize more and that she doesn't need to play computer games as much as she does.
It is easy, as parents, to think that we have a greater understanding of what our children need and that part of meeting our children's needs is sometimes taking control of the situation and making them do something for their own good. What happens when we do that? In our great parental wisdom we know that our child needs to get out of the house more. We tell our child that she must go play at the friend's house. She goes, but she is not happy about it and that affects her ability to have fun. In fact, she does not have fun, she ends up having a terrible time full of conflict, and comes home saying, "See, I told you I wouldn't have fun." The next time she is invited to play with a friend, and you start to push her to go, she remembers the conflict the last time you made her go and she has even less desire to play.
Some of you are going to point to the times it has worked for you, you pushed your child to go play and she had fun and see, you were right. Why do you need to be right? Would the world have ended if your child sat on the couch for a few more days before she decided that she was ready to go play with a friend? What does your child learn when you are right and she is wrong? She learns that her own judgment cannot be trusted and that she needs someone else to tell her what to do. She learns to stop listening to her inner wisdom.
Keeping my mouth shut is a huge challenge for me as a parent. I know what they need, I have the answer, I can fix this, I want to tell them what they should do because I love them and want them to be happy. Yes, sometimes my girls come to me wanting my help and asking me what I think and we talk things through together, however there are times when they wish I would shut up already. Different children want different amounts of parental input. Some children really want to be left alone to figure it out on their own. As painful as it can be to watch them struggle when we have an easy answer, we need to respect their desire to do it themselves. On the other hand, some children want us to provide the answers all the time, to come up with the solution, to do it for them. For those children we need to be willing to do more than we think we should. They will learn, they will get to the point of doing it on their own. They are watching us model those behaviors and activities. They know if we are helping then with unconditional love and respect or if we are grumbling about having to do it for them when they need to learn to do it on their own. We can choose to connect with our children who want more support through love and nurture or disconnect by being scornful and irritable.
When we give our children the room to explore their needs in a safe and supportive relationship they learn to trust themselves, their judgment, their inner wisdom. They learn from first hand experience that eating too much candy on an empty stomach makes them feel icky, or perhaps they learn that they have an iron gut and they can eat anything they want with no ill effects. This does not mean that we set them up for negative experiences so that they learn the lesson. We do not give them a huge bag of candy and tell them to have at it and then say "see I told you so" when they feel sick. We are right there with them, still meeting their needs when they ask or if they are receptive. We provide them with information about the possible outcomes of a choice or help support them in doing research to learn more, if they want the information. If they want our input and involvement we help them process their experiences, or share our experiences in a conversational manner, "When I first get up in the morning I can feel out of sorts until after I eat something, do you feel that way too?" It means making peppermint tea for their tummy if they feel sick from eating something that caused a negative reaction in their body and bringing it to them with empathy, not a lecture or guilt trip.
How do we identify what our children need? We are actively involved in their lives and have a strong connection with them so that we are more likely to understand what they need or they are more likely to ask for what they need. We trust them to know what they need. We trust their methods of learning new things, remembering that making mistakes is a great way to learn and that many people learn best through experience. We keep trying. If we try to meet a need and end up being rejected by our child or feeling like we only made things worse we learn from that and try again. Sometimes that means backing off and giving our child room to experience things on his own. Sometimes we may know the answer, but that is our answer, and our children need the space to find their own. Meeting our children's needs is not about us as parents, our wisdom, or even about always getting it right. We do not have to figure this out on our own. We have partners in our children and together we can figure out what their needs are and how they can be met.