How do we distinguish between our children’s needs and wants?

“How do we distinguish between our children’s needs and wants?” Ensign, June 1995, 67–68

As well-meaning parents, we sometimes have difficulty distinguished between our children’s needs and wants. Where do we draw the line between responsible parenthood and overindulgence or neglect of our children?

Answered by Alvin H. Price, professor of family science, Brigham Young University, and bishop of the BYU 146th Ward, BYU Seventeenth Stake.

How much should parents do for their children? How can parents tell if they are neglecting or spoiling their children?

Let’s begin with a minimal list of moral obligations that parents have toward their children: (1) create a home atmosphere of love and support; (2) be actively engaged in teaching and guiding them; (3) provide for their basic physical needs; and (4) help them mature socially, emotionally, intellectually, vocationally, and spiritually, so they can live productive, happy lives (see Isa. 54:13; Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4; Mosiah 4:14; D&C 68:25–28; D&C 83:4; D&C 93:40).

Responsible parents meet these obligations by using their resources of money, time, knowledge, talents, and love. As long as parents use these resources wisely to meet the obligations mentioned above, they need not be concerned about spoiling their children or denying them what is rightfully theirs.

When a necessary resource becomes scarce, a child is sometimes neglected. A parent’s willful, selfish neglect of his or her child is a sin. Children represent the future, and parents should do all they can to help them prepare for it. Wise parents gladly make appropriate sacrifices to give their children the opportunities and resources they need and have a right to expect for their personal growth and welfare. As long as parents are willing, they can correct any mismanagement of resources. They can eliminate unnecessary activities from their lives in order to spend more time with their children. With careful planning, they can make their money go further.

Children, however, may sometimes expect too much of their parents, suggesting that “everybody else” lets their children go to certain movies, date before the age of sixteen, drive a car to high school, etc. Parents have the responsibility to make wise decisions in matters such as these, weighing children’s true needs and saying no to unreasonable requests. Parents’ commitment to gospel principles will help increase their patience and their ability to love and to separate their children’s appropriate needs and wants from desires based more on peer pressure, fashion, or selfishness than on true need.

Although it is possible for parents to give their children too many things, they do not necessarily overindulge their children if they use resources beyond the minimum amount required to foster a child’s growth and development. Resources expended on some nonessentials often are beneficial to children—improving their self-worth and sense of family belonging and gratitude, helping them develop talents, enabling them to focus attention on other needs, goals, interests, and so on.

So what is overindulgence? Its clues can be found in the motivations parents have for giving. Parents are likely to overindulge a child when one or more of the following reasons underlies their behavior.

  • First, they are insecure as parents. One parental duty is to set limits. When a child complains about a limit, the insecure parent becomes anxious and then gives in to the child. Indeed, some parents are so hesitant to set guidelines and limits that they leave the disciplining of their children to teachers, school authorities, and officers of the law. Such overindulgence is obviously out of harmony with the Lord’s plan (see Prov. 22:6).

  • Second, feeling guilty about not giving their children enough time and love, some parents try to make up for lost opportunities by buying things for their children. (Notice the fancy gift shops in every airport.)

  • Third, some parents overcompensate for their own childhood neglect. Because they don’t want their children to struggle, they overindulge them, sometimes unwittingly.

  • Fourth, parents sometimes try to provide social acceptance for their children by giving them more things than their peers have.

A colleague of mine gave me some good advice. Her strategy was to give her children things less grand than what the neighbors’ children had. She wanted her children to learn that they were valuable not for what they have but for who they are. Her plan worked. Instead of having the best, her children are the best. It makes good sense for parents to consider their motivation before giving extra resources to their children.

Some of the clues of the overindulgence phenomenon come from the child. Is the child never satisfied, even though given much? Some children are adept at manipulating their parents. They know how to get what they want by making one or both parents feel guilty. Is the child ungrateful and selfish? Is the child habitually irresponsible toward the resources he or she has received (not taking care of toys and clothes, for example)? Does the child make fun of other people’s things for being less expensive, less fashionable, or of inferior quality?

Responsible parenthood is not a fine line that parents walk between neglect and indulgence, both of which are extremes that are usually easily detectable and correctable. Nor is it measured by the amount of resources parents use on behalf of their children but rather by their prudent distribution of those resources. Parents who live within their means and carefully consider their motivations and their children’s welfare as they allocate resources are unlikely to either neglect or overindulge their children.

Photography by Welden Andersen