How Do I Teach My Kid They Can't Always Get What They Want?

low demand parenting foundations reader question May 22, 2023

I am often asked,

"How do I teach my kid that they can't always get what they want? They can't always get their own way. The world isn't like that, right?”


Before we tackle the question of getting what we want, It's important to differentiate between wanting and getting. Because we ALL want what we want. We also all want to get our own way. It's human nature. Some of us are deeply and powerfully socialized to believe that we should want what others want -- more than we want to meet our own needs. But this doesn't serve us well.

Your child wants what they want. They want it powerfully. They are having a strong, wild, intense emotional experience of wanting. Before we move to what you do next, let's sit with this emotional experience and bring empathy to it. Let's not shame and judge this big emotion.

Wanting what we want is a powerfully adaptive, powerfully human experience. It keeps us alive. Your child is not bad or wrong for wanting this so much.


Let's be honest, grown-ups:

We want to get what we want too.

That's why we are in this loggerheads-moment in the first place. Your child wants what they want, and in some way, it is not aligned with what you want, and so you are at an impasse. Perhaps what your child wants in this moment is control and autonomy. By refusing to give it, you are getting what you want, which is to maintain adult control.


The low demand approach sinks below the wants and asks about the needs.

The Rolling Stones had it right:

"You can't always get what you want, you can try sometimes but you might find you get what you need."

We want what we want. That's human nature. The finesse and the true skill is learning to meet our own needs.

I don't want to teach my kids that they can't get what they want all the time. I want to teach them they can get their needs met in a trusting and connected relationship with me, always.

At first, if you're just starting out and trust is low or your child is in burnout, we convey this truth by meeting their wants, as often as possible. Because if they do not know the difference yet between want and need, then we cannot ask them to do so.


We drop the demand that they have these meta-cognitive skills to tell the difference between wants and needs. That's our job.

We begin by meeting the wants, as often as possible, and as trust and stability grows, we can watch for signs that tolerance is growing, that awareness is expanding, and the capacity to differentiate may be emerging. We don't push them toward it. We allow them to grow there at their own pace.


Rather than demanding that they accept a hard truth--that they can't always get what they want--can we sit with the difference between our own wants and needs?

We want for them to handle hearing "no you cant get that toy in the gift shop" without a meltdown. That may not be possible. So let's drop down to our needs. Do we need to have a lovely end to a challenging day? Do we need a break from whining? Do we need to look strong and in control for the other adults in the gift shop?

We want for them to stop playing their video game and come say "hi" to grandma when she arrives from a long trip. That may not be possible either. Let's drop down to our needs. Do we need to prove to grandma that we're a good parent? Do we need evidence that this isn't a "video game addiction" as everyone keeps saying it is? Do we need to see our kid smiling and relaxed when they come and see grandma on their own? Do we need to feel connected to our child even with a triggering person in the household?


We all want what we want. This is human, adaptive, and good. We don't teach our kids that they can't get what they want. We create a home culture of trust and connection where they can safely explore the difference between wants and needs. We press into our adult desire for control, and explore our own needs that lurk beneath. We meet our primary needs while not asking anything that's too hard of our children. This is the magic, the ease, and the joy of low demand parenting.

Why is everything so hard?


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