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When Kids Can't Have What They Want

By Drs. Rick and Jan Hanson

"Our 14-month-old, Sam, really gets mad when he can't do or have something he wants. He'll hold on tight to an object, and if we take it away, he will try to get it back and fuss a lot. I'm worried about frustrating him too much, but my mother tells me that kids just have to learn that they cannot always get what they want."

How to respond when the wants of parents and children differ is one of The Big Questions of parenting. Things usually go well when parents and kids want the same things -- problems start when they don't!

On the one hand, high levels of parental tolerance for and gratification of child wants are associated with high levels of child attachment, social competence, positive mood, and self-confidence.

On the other hand, parents have to be in charge. But studies show that a large proportion (sometimes half!) of all parental control behaviors with young children are idiosyncratic and unnecessary. The typical toddler experiences an average of roughly 20 restrictions of his or her wants per hour. How would you feel if someone got in the way of your wishes every three minutes, hour after hour, day by day?

Parental control is generally needed when child pursues a good goal in a bad way. Examples include pursuing pleasure by eating too much candy, or trying to learn about the world by sticking a knife into an electrical socket. The goal is fine, but the methods aren't so hot.

In these cases, how about offering an alternative way for the child to attain the positive goal? (By the way, Rick's doctoral dissertation was on this subject; he's the world's leading expert on it!)

For example, if Sam shouldn't play with your sunglasses (or camera, electrical cords, bread knife, etc.), you could try to interest him in some other acceptable object or activity: "Uh-oh, not that buzzsaw again, Sam! Come here and see these neat blocks. Let's make a tower!"

Or you could change just the problematic element(s) in Sam's activities so that he can keep going safely (or neatly, quietly, etc.) with his basic plan. This could include shifting location (water play outside or in the bathtub), altering some feature of the object (a big plastic spoon instead of a metal one), or providing a new target (whacking something other than baby sister's head).

Research shows that offering alternatives to young children is likely to reduce both non-compliance and fussing. It also teaches children that their parents (or other caregivers) care about their wants, and that other options are often available.

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