How to Meet Your Child’s Needs, and Your Own

8 min read

Parenting is a fulfilling journey with moments of joy and a lot of personal growth. And…it can also be difficult. Conflicts arise when your toddler says no, your preschooler looks you in the eye while doing the thing you asked them not to do, or your teenager asserts their independence.

In the United States, we have few models for how to navigate conflict that doesn’t involve one person winning and the other losing. Perhaps that’s why soccer never caught on here, as two teams can run around for 90 minutes with the end result being a tie.

Our governance systems, criminal justice systems, and competitive culture all reward winners at the expense of losers. It’s not surprising that this power-over dynamic shows up in family life as well. In a 1966 paper describing parenting approaches — “Effects of Authoritative Parental Control on Child Behavior” — Diana Baumrind argued that “the proper way to train a child is for the parent or teacher to play the role of omniscient interpreter of an omnipotent deity and to insist forcibly, when necessary, that the child conform to absolute rules of conduct.” Almost 60 years ago, Baumrind didn’t use the term “parenting styles” that is commonly used today; she called them types of “adult control.”

Even the parent using Baumrind’s preferred style, “authoritative,” “uses reason, power, and shaping by regime and reinforcement to achieve her [sic] objectives and does not base her decisions on group consensus or the individual child’s desires.” Authoritative parenting is still almost universally accepted as the best parenting style of the four that Baumrind considered central to her model. Her research turned up a fifth style, though—”harmonious”—which she apparently disregarded because the two boys whose parents used it were “notably submissive, aimless, not achievement-oriented, and dependent…the harmonious pattern of child-rearing seemed to produce an effeminate orientation in boys (if one can say much about two cases), while the effect in girls was entirely positive.”

But Baumrind might have found the harmonious style to be even better than the authoritative style, if she’d taken the time to understand its effects on more than eight children. She might have found that families which value “honesty, harmony, justice, and rationality…taking precedence over power, achievement, control, and order” raise children who have a strong sense of themselves—and an ability to create harmonious relationships with others, a crucial skill in an increasingly polarized world. So how might we do this?

Recognizing our needs is different from our strategies

Every conflict, from a global war to a squabble over a toy, boils down to people trying to meet their needs. The most important thing to know about needs is that they are different from the strategies we use to meet our needs.

When I teach workshops on this topic, I often describe how I got fed up with unloading the dishwasher at our house. It didn’t take long but I resented doing it every morning while my husband slept late and then ate a leisurely breakfast. One day I picked a fight with him: I had decided that that getting him to unload the dishwasher was the only thing that would help me.

My need was not to get the dishwasher unloaded; my needs were for collaboration and partnership. There are hundreds of ways we could have worked together to meet those needs. He could have gone grocery shopping, or cooked dinner, or taken our daughter out so I could work. I picked a fight over the strategy I had decided was the right one, not the need.

Because few of us grew up knowing how to identify our needs, never mind meet how to them, the process can initially feel a little strange. But once you get used to it, you find that you can much more quickly discover why conflicts are occurring and identify strategies that meet everyone’s needs.

How to identify needs

We can always ask another person what their needs are, and with some practice they may be able to tell us. But in the early days, our most effective approach is to look for patterns:

  • Is the child refusing to get dressed or get in the car on school days only? There may be a problem at school to address—perhaps a lack of safety in the classroom, or among classmates on the playground.
  • Is the child refusing to get dressed or get in the car every time you’ll be separated? They may need emotional comfort and security while they’re apart from you.
  • Is the child refusing to get dressed or get in the car every single time, no matter where you’re going? Their need is more likely to be related to physical comfort of clothes or the car seat.

One area where I see problems come up time and time again between parents and young children is when the child needs autonomy and the parent prescribes what must be done and how to do it. Another is when a child has a need for connection, and the parent wants the child to do things for themselves.

I am not suggesting that the parent in these situations should ignore their own needs; far from it. When we can understand our needs, we can more successfully find ways to meet those needs and meet our children’s needs.

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Just like my real need was not to get the dishwasher unloaded, your need is not to get out of the house in the morning, for your child to brush their teeth, or for them to stay in bed. Your needs might be for competence in your work, for peace and ease and harmony in your relationship, and for rest and self-care. All of these needs are as valid as your child’s, and you deserve to have them met, just as your child does.

How to meet multiple people’s needs

If your child has a need for connection in the morning and you have a need for competence in your work, you might try:

  • Helping them to get dressed
  • Building in a few minutes of playtime with them
  • Not booking meetings first thing in the morning (if this is possible)

If your child has a need for autonomy and you have a need to keep their bodies (and mouths) safe, you might try:

  • Allowing them as much of a say as possible over toothbrushing—when, where, and how it happens
  • Not holding them down/holding the back of their head. If they have the choice to participate, they’re much more likely to be willing to participate than if you remove that choice

If your child has a need for joy and fun (and they aren’t tired!) and you have a need for rest and self-care, you might try:

  • Allowing them to play quietly while you rest
  • Reading a book or listening to a podcast in their room
  • Having another caregiver help with bedtime, if one is available
  • Building in more time for rest and self-care earlier in the day

Very often, we parents get attached to a single strategy that we think is the right one. When we can find some cognitive flexibility we can see how using a strategy they propose can help us to meet our needs as well.

Shifting from win-lose to win-win

Moving from the old way of resolving conflicts, where someone wins and someone loses in a struggle for limited resources, is a big change. This new approach promotes teamwork and finding solutions that work for everyone. We’re trading a competitive, power-over mindset for one based on collaboration and power sharing.

When we use our power over another person, we aren’t considering their needs. That’s why our children resist when we propose strategies that meet our needs but not theirs, and when we use our power to get them to comply. When we use strategies that meet everyone’s needs, we don’t have to use our power because then others don’t resist getting their needs met.

The benefits of this approach go far beyond making the immediate parenting struggles easier. We’re also practicing a family dynamic that truly respects all family members’ needs, and sees all of their needs as worthy of being met. Children who practice this skill on a routine basis can go out into the world and meet their own needs in intimate relationships, work relationships, and political life, while meeting other people’s needs as well. In a world in which people are struggling over their needs for safety, autonomy, and respect, an ability to meet multiple people’s needs will be a critical skill.

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