If we want our children to live fulfilling lives, one of the most useful things we can do is to help them be in “right relationship” with personal power and responsibility. Mindful speech is one very effective tool for creating — or destroying — this relationship. A common way that we parents undermine our children’s power is by misusing the word “need.”

What is a need anyway?

If we truly need something, it’s essential. Oxygen, water, food, sleep are physical needs whose absence ensure our death. Psychological needs include freedom, power, and belonging. A want (which is what we often confuse with a “need”) is a desire that no matter it’s strength won’t kill us if it goes unfulfilled.

Parents are frequently “needy” with their children expressing wants disguised as needs either consciously or unconsciously. See if any of these examples sound familiar:

  • “You need to clean up your room.”
  • “We need to leave for school now.”
  • “I need you to be quiet.”
  • “You need to give that toy back to your friend who had it first.”
  • “Mama needs to take this phone call right now.”

Unless any of these “needs” being unfulfilled would lead to death or the actual inability for a subsequent action to take place, they are actually wants, not needs. Sure there are consequences to any of them not happening — a room remaining dirty might mean a punishment in your family or failing to give back a toy may lead to a fight — but they don’t actually “need” to happen.

These actions happening might be your preference, desire, or even your demand but the truth is that calling them “needs” or otherwise making it sound like they are essential is being deceitful and manipulative with your kids. It’s a power play that parents use to make their wants appear more important or valid (by calling them needs) than their child’s wants. If, for instance, you want to have some time to yourself after your child “needs” to be asleep but your child wants to be awake with you, who “wins?” Using the needy language we attempt to trump their want in a dishonest, psychological arm-twist by pretending our want is essential. This game also teaches our children to be at the effect of life, others, and even their own beliefs or fears by misidentifying wants as needs.

How does calling “wants” “needs” diminish my child’s power?

When we believe that we “need” to do something, we feel powerless to choose otherwise. As I described above, a need is essential to our life and since most of us want to keep on living, we generally feel compelled to fulfill any needs be they real or perceived. Having coached people for over a decade I can assert that personally refusing to mislabel wants as needs brings a great deal of freedom and deeper sense of authority over one’s own life. Therefore if we want our children to feel their power and learn how to think through choices and prioritize their own wants, we can start by telling the truth about what’s a real need and what’s not.

“You may believe that you are responsible for what you do, but not for what you think. The truth is that you are responsible for what you think, because it is only at this level that you can exercise choice. What you do comes from what you think.”

~ A Course in Miracles