Focusing on Children’s Needs

April 8th, 2010 by Dionna | 8 Comments
Posted in Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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This post is part of the 2010 API Principles of Parenting blog carnival, a series of monthly parenting blog carnivals, hosted by API Speaks. Learn more about attachment parenting by visiting the API website.

toddler boy and chimpanzee stare into distance

Parenting is the ultimate game of "monkey see, monkey do." When we respond with sensitivity to our children, so too, will they respond with sensitivity to others.

Mind Your Manners

My son recently received two books with “object lessons” on manners. Both books begin with the “antagonist,” a sweet little elephant who is about 4 or 5 years old, expressing a need. They follow the same basic storyline.

In “Excuse Me!,” the elephant is lonely because she does not have anyone to play with. She thinks to herself, “I’ll go ask Mom what to do.” She approaches her mother (who is visiting with a neighbor) with her need: “Mom, I want to whisper something to you.” The mother ignores her and “just keeps talking to Mrs. Phant.” The little elephant persists: “Mom, it’s VERY important!” The mother shushes her daughter.

In “Remember the Magic Word,” the elephant’s tummy is rumbling. She says “I think I need a snack, I’ll go and tell Mom.” She approaches her mother (who is cooking in the kitchen) with her need: “I want some peanuts.” Mom doesn’t move. The elephant expresses her need again, but louder. Mom continues to ignore her.

After both of these exchanges, there are several pages of the little elephant wondering why she is being ignored. A light bulb moment happens in each, and the elephant realizes that she was not being polite. In “Excuse Me!” she tries again but says “excuse me,” and in “Remember the Magic Word” she asks for peanuts please. Finally, the mother acknowledges her need and responds.

I hate those books.

Object Lessons

In the scheme of things, I suppose a mother ignoring her child to “teach her a lesson” isn’t that bad. But what else is that teaching her? I can think of a few things:

*The child’s needs are not as important as the perception of manners.

*The child’s needs will be ignored at the adult’s whim.

*The child is not good enough for a response.

*If someone is not addressing you properly, ignoring that person is an acceptable response.

Focus on Needs, Not Behavior

I recently read Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids (a book I highly recommend).In the book, the authors encourage parents to think about the child’s needs behind the behavior. All behavior is based on a need, for adults and children. Think about it:

  • When you are tired, you get grumpy if you can’t sleep.
  • When you are hungry, you get distracted if you can’t eat.
  • When you are frustrated or angry, you may be short-tempered or brusque with your children or spouse.

Solving the root of the problem – the tiredness, hunger, frustration, or anger – will do more to impact the resultant behavior than addressing the behavior itself. For example:

  • If your child is tired and is having one meltdown after another, is it more effective to gently help him to bed or to spank him for his latest tantrum?
  • If your child is hungry and is consequently unable to concentrate on whatever task you put in front of her, is it more effective to get her a snack or to shame her for her inattention?
  • If your child is frustrated with an inability to do something that he is not developmentally able to do, is it more effective to offer your compassionate help or to put him in timeout for his failure?

The authors remind us that no matter how crazy your child’s actions may seem to you, from tugging on your pant leg to yelling, all that your child is trying to do at that moment is fulfill a need – a need you occasionally have, too.

Is the need for your attention? For consideration, choice, or autonomy? Think about how you would like someone to respond to you when you have the same need.

Your child will probably not try to meet his need in the same way you would, and that’s ok. Your child is not at the same developmental level as you.

Your child’s attempts to meet her need may frustrate or annoy you, but take a breath – try to stay patient. You will have the best chance of connecting with him – and also of helping him find a better way – if you recognize the need he’s sincerely trying to meet at that moment.*

How have you respectfully listened to and met your child’s needs lately?

Gentle Parent - art by Erika Hastings at

Hart, Sura & Hodson, Victoria, Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids: 7 Keys to Turn Family Conflict into Cooperation at Ch. 1

8 Responses to:
"Focusing on Children’s Needs"

  1. We should have coordinated posts this week. :)

  2. jenny

    as always i learn from you. i agree… stay patient, that is my mantra.
    and yes, i hate those books, and the fact that many many people think that is how one should parent…i hate that even more. *sigh*

  3. Dionna   CodeNameMama

    Mandy – anytime you want to do a guest post exchange or coordinate a topic, say the word! :)

    Jenny – your patience is an inspiration for me. I catch myself singing things sometimes like you do in order to stay patient!

  4. Kevin

    Thanks for the advice. I will try to put it into play the rest of this week and beyond.

  5. ah…now that would actually take coordination on my part. :)

  6. Amber   AmberStrocel

    I do try to understand my child’s underlying needs, and meet them before problems arise. I also try to remain patient and see what’s actually going on. However, with my 5-year-old I sometimes ask her to re-phrase a question before I respond. At her age, it’s reasonable for her to learn that saying, “I’d like more milk, please,” is a better way to get what she wants than saying, “Milk! DID YOU HEAR ME?!?!” She is old enough to have a budding understanding of appropriate social behaviour.

    I wouldn’t expect manners out of my toddler – he’s too young. But as my kids get older, teaching them manners becomes more important. I would probably tune out or avoid an adult who yelled at me every time they wanted something. I want my kids to be able to function in the world, and I want them to respect my needs as well. That begins by respecting their needs and modeling. And as they get older, I expect some respect in return, at least some of the time.

  7. Amber   unlikelymama

    Such great points and MORE promising books to read. Gawd, if I ever find time. STILL working on Unconditional Parenting. I should really get off the internet when I have a break and read a real book!

  8. Sarah

    I agree those books send the wrong message. When we accidently end up reading a book like that at the library we talk about what the mom could have done different and how the child felt beign treated that way. I love the book Mathilda by Roald Dahl (for the most part ; ) sending the message that kids are people too.

    I also think that correcting a child isn’t the best way to teach manners. My 20 month old will say ‘please’ and ‘Thank you very much’ almost all the time, she also says ‘You’re welcome’. My 3+yr old is even more consistent at using her manners. When we talk to them we use please and thank you etc. Also if we give them an ‘order’ (something they really don’t have much choice in) we don’t say please – please implies they have a choice. Also we rarely ever ask one of the girls to use her manners. We model and that is more than enough. Now other parents we see regularly at best ignore their kids until they hear proper manners, at worst they will lecture or belittle. Of course their kids rarely remember to use proper manners, but how can they when they’re constantly worried about every interaction and what kind of response it will illicit?

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