Teaching Children The Difference Between Needs And Wants

Posted: February 7, 2014

Kids today have so much, but peer pressure makes them want even more! How can parents teach children the difference between needs and wants? Tips for parents:

By Tanu Shree Singh

‘Can I have that pen? It is just five hundred rupees Ma, and I need it.’

What all is wrong with that sentence?

– The ‘just five hundred’ is what the car-wash guy charges to wash the car for a month.

– Yes, he needs a pen, but a ten-rupee pen would do an equally good job.

– The biggest problem – we usually relent.

It is not about affordability; it is about teaching the child to differentiate between needs and wants. It is also about teaching children to delay gratification and tougher – to deal with refusal.

Importance of delayed gratification

Children need to learn the importance of delayed gratification. Simply put, it means, they should acquire the decision-making ability that help them make a choice to forego something now for the pleasure of being able to have something better later. This is important because:

– Children who learn say ‘no’ to themselves, and are able to accept the reasoning behind it, grow up to be adults with better self-control. According to research, the children who were able to delay gratification when they were four generally scored higher in academics, exhibited more social competence, and were better at planning and handling stress.

– Intelligence and self-control are deeply related since both originate in the same part of the brain. Saying that self-control leads to better intelligence would be stretching it a bit, but they have been seen to coincide.

– When we tie the wants to goal achievements, chances are that the child will strive to get that reward, and in the process learn a thing or two about hard work, persistence as well as dealing with failure.

– Delayed and rationed gratification teach the child to appreciate things much more. Since the time the boys have started buying their own stationery, there are fewer ‘thefts’ reported and everything is in prime condition.

– In today’s highly materialistic world, children need to learn the value of money, as well as its triviality when it comes to achieving true happiness.

Tips for parents

An important thing to consider while teaching children to differentiate between needs and wants is that learning is linked to the developmental level of understanding. A two-year-old cannot be expected to wait patiently for hours to get a pat on the back or a candy.

The child’s personality, as well as the present physical and mental condition, play an important role. If you set out to teach an unwell or an irritated child the importance of overlooking the desires, you might find yourself in a puddle of tears.

Keeping that in mind, some ways to help them realise their potential to be better self-controlled are:

Model well

Show them that you are willing to forego your desires so that the needs of others are met. Also, go shopping with a list – it shows that you carefully thought what is needed and are not buying on a whim.

Teach them about money

Children as young as 4 years can understand the value of saving, so it is never too early to teach them how money works. It is essential that they learn that the ATM machine doesn’t magically produce money.

Pay bills together

Take your children with you to pay bills. Talk to them about monthly expenses. Ask them to handover the salary to the house help, the gardener or any other person around the house. This not only helps them understand the amount it takes to keep the show running, but also appreciate what the salary means to the helpers. The amount that they want for a PSP game might be feeding multiple mouths for a month.

Differentiate between needs and wants

Make a list of all things that the child has, or says he needs. Ask him to underline the needs. Explain to him that needs are the things that we must have in order to survive. All other things that we can live without, but would like to have, are the wants. Once done, discuss why the video game is not a need while food is.

Give them an opportunity to earn

Children should mostly be helping around the house without expecting compensation. However, sometimes, offer them the opportunity to earn money. Fix the amount of money they can make by completing that chore. Compensate fairly – overpaying kills the purpose. An opportunity to earn teaches them the value of money, as well as the joys of financial independence – however limited.

Teach them to budget

The simplest way to teach children the power of budgeting is through ‘Share, save and spend’. Give your child three jars. Label them – the first one as Share, the second as Save and the third as Spend. Whenever the child earns money from the chores or receives money from a doting aunt, place a pre-decided percentage in each jar. Stick to the rule, consistently.  For example: 60% could be for save, 30% for spending and 10% for share.

Don’t give in to tantrums

The easiest route to end a tantrum is to give in. Sadly, that is also a sure-shot technique to deeply engrain the behaviour. Kids rarely grow out of tantrums; they merely re-model it to fit age- appropriate behaviours. It is best to nip it all in the bud. Be sure to never given to tantrums. So draw in a long breath and wait for your child to get up, so that you can leave the shop without the shouting matches or the customary ‘oh alright, buy it!’

Get them to play an instrument or take up a sport

Learning music or a sport requires patience and hard work, and hence become excellent tools for teaching the meaning and value of delayed gratification.

Teach them to compare prices

When they decide to spend out of their jar, encourage children to compare prices. For example, if we end up browsing for books at the big stores, we buy them either where we get membership discounts, or online, where there is a good deal thrown in. So the kids have realised that they can maximise the power of their money by waiting for the courier guy who would probably deliver the same book a week later.

Set realistic goals

Tie incentives to goals rather than just buying on a whim. That way, they are motivated to work towards it and they also imbibe patience and persistence. Discuss with the child to arrive at an attainable goal and not something that the child gives up on easily.

We all know we are living in material times, and also somewhere now realise that real happiness is not in our bank balance, the label on the handbag, or the name of the destination on our travel tickets. However, with the ever-growing lists of wants, it is urgent that the children realise the futility of money in achieving true happiness, as well as learn to reign in their impulses. The good news is that it is perfectly doable and we can help them with it.

*Photo credit: Humayun Rashid (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)

Dr. Tanu Shree Singh is a parent to two preteen boys, a lecturer in Psychology,

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  1. Thanks a lot for this article. We needed it. I have a 4+ kid and have been looking for ways to teach him about the value of money and his constant demand for toys.
    Dr. Tanu Shree you views have made it easy for me. I agree that a 4 year old understands the concept of money and must be taught its value.
    No better time than the present.
    Thank you.

  2. Loved this !

    And yet ,it is very difficult to teach my teenager.Maybe I am to blame.She did compare prices for buying books online & hope she continues it.She is reducing her wants ….I would like to believe & yet her wants are more than what I have now.

    Maybe ,I have to have more patience & be persistent with it.

    • I honestly feel that awareness that this needs to be addressed is half battle won. I see a lot of parents every day mindlessly spending and fulfilling each and every whim and fancy that crosses their child’s mind. All the best!

  3. Very nice piece and quite informative too.. however I had a question, if we start involving children in things like paying bills at the early age of 4, aren’t we making them grow up a little too fast? Teaching them the value of money is necessary but involving them in certain decision making processes, can it not have an adverse effect on them? The reason I ask is that I have seen a kid who has begun acting like a grown up at the tender age of 6 because of a lot of topics her parents involve her in, including money.

    • Thanks Seeta! See, about involving kids early, say if the child is demanding a 2K glitzy toy, he/she should me made aware of the worth of that amount. Then again, huge amount bills, transactions and investments will get too complicated. Always a good idea to gradually involve them. A good idea is to start with grocery bills.

  4. We cannot explain everything in the world to them. Sometimes its best to be stern with ‘this us what it is’. Besides, if kids are bit mature they will see n learn..You have to be parents someday n a friend other day…

  5. Good article. Teaching difference between needs and wants is very important. Kids must also be made aware that parents have to slog to earn and make many compromises as well. There was a concept of ‘Khari kamai’ where in kids were sent to do some tasks for neighbours for which they were given some money. This kind of thing will help them appreciate efforts that go into earning money in turn will help them be judicious about spending it.

  6. Pingback: Teaching Children The Difference Between Needs And Wants | Random thoughts

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