Children’s Wants Versus Needs

The Art of Letting Go, Pt 2

by:  Alan W. Carson ACPI® Coach for Parents

In my first article on letting go, we focused on the importance of parents requiring that their kids accept an increasing amount of responsibility as they mature.  The goal is that our children can largely succeed on their own by the time they graduate from high school. Therefore, some of the traits and qualities our kids have to possess are self-discipline, time management, a good work ethic, resilience, passion, and strong people skills. If we are always hovering and rescuing our kids, we are sacrificing long-term success for short-term success.

In this second article, we’ll discuss letting go from our child’s point of view. In a nutshell, tweens and teens want more and more privileges and freedom. As I mentioned in last week’s article I was a middle school guidance counselor for fifteen years and consistently interacted with parents, often as a result of their child’s underachievement. In attempting to gather more information from these parents, I would often ask about the child’s routines, obligations and activities outside of school.  It was often the case that underachieving students lived the good life: time with friends, minimal responsibilities at home, an iPod and cell phone, and lots of screen time (TV, computer games, and social networks). When I hear these kinds of stories, I ask myself, “Why is this child given all of these privileges devoid of expectations? What is this student learning? How is this child going to afford this lifestyle as an adult if he has never acquired a work ethic while growing up?”

Our children need our love, attention, acceptance, support and time.  Our kids want but do not need computer games, iPods, Facebook, sleepovers and ultimately get their driver’s license and go to parties and concerts. We parents cannot let go and just give these kinds of things to our tweens and teens without requiring that they earn them.

Our kids are given what they need and earn what they want.  If we raise our kids to understand that privileges are earned, when they haven’t earned a privilege who are they going to direct their anger towards?  They need to be mad at themselves. We cannot allow ourselves to buy into their manipulation and conclude that we’re unreasonable parents.

We’ll look specifically at our child’s desire to have a cell phone.  Most kids start begging their parents for a cell phone in 5th or 6th grade. We’ll say my daughter, Annie, brings up the issue of a cell phone in the summer before her 6th grade year. If I am on the ball I say, “Annie, I have to think about this.”  One of the questions I ask myself is, “Does Annie normally display responsibility?”  If the answer is yes, I continue to give her request consideration and start thinking about the guidelines I expect her to follow.

If Annie is fairly irresponsible, she is not ready for a phone. These two issues are directly related. If I bought Annie a cell phone she needs to be responsible enough to:

– know where it is and not lose it

– keep it charged

– keep it on silent in school, church, etc

– keep it away from water

– turn it off at bedtime

– not misuse the phone by sexting or by sending nasty e-mails.

If Annie is not ready for the phone, here is what I say:

“Annie, I have given your request for a phone a lot of thought. At this time,   the answer is no, and here is why. Having a cell phone is a significant   responsibility. Thus far, you haven’t demonstrated to me that you are    responsible enough. I have to nag you to do your homework, you don’t clean up after yourself, it is almost impossible to get you out of bed in the morning, and most of the time I end up doing your chores.  Work on these things and  we’ll talk.”

This approach to earned privileges is beautiful.  We don’t argue, we don’t attack, and we don’t criticize. We place the burden where it belongs– back on our child.  We use the cell phone issue to influence her to become more responsible. If she wants a phone badly enough, she’ll shape up. If Annie responds with a disrespectful tone, we say:

“Annie, why are you giving me an attitude? I know you want a phone and lots  of your friends have them. I know you are missing out on all the texting that    goes on. But the bottom line is that I am happy to buy you a phone when I feel   comfortable that you’ll take care of it. To buy you one before you are ready is     to set you up to fail.”

[For the benefit of those of you with young kids, even impressive kids make mistakes– they are kids. My superb daughter, a graduating high school senior is on her 4th phone.  The first went through the laundry because my wife doesn’t check pockets, the 2nd fell in the toilet and the 3rd broke when it fell on a concrete floor. None of us are perfect.]

This philosophy holds true for all privileges: sleepovers, parties, getting your driver’s license, and video game consoles.  When our kids display the qualities they need to display, they get more perks. They get more perks because they have demonstrated the ability to make good decisions. When they continue to make good decisions, they earn more privileges. If they make poor decisions, privileges are removed until they convince us they have learned their lesson.  We should not agree to a privilege an then sit and worry all night about them.

Let’s prepare our kids to be successful, healthy adults!

Alan is an ACPI® Coach for Parents, and author of Before They Know It All: Talking to Tweens and Teens About Sexuality, which is available from his website as an e-book–

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  1. Marlene says:

    Good ideas, thank you very much. I like the way you teach responsibility for possessions, so often my children take their gadgets for granted and do not care for them properly.

  2. BRAVO!! I know a very bright, capable child who just graduated from high school who perfectly fits your description of the underachieving child. It is so terriby sad to see so much potential going down the drain and knowing that it is the direct result of parents who were afraid to say no for fear of how they would be perceived by their child.

    I have a child entering 5th grade who has started the cell phone campaign. I love your suggestions for dealing with the decision.

  3. Great post with great suggestions. I guess this is a problem that is ruining many kids these days, and it’s so unnecessary. I hope many parents find this post!

  4. CD's mom says:

    My 8 year old, about to enter 3rd grade, has been begging for a cell phone. Our answer is no until he’s older and more ready for that responsibility. He asked for a ball python, too, after visiting a snake museum. Given his not-good history with pet chores, I challenged him to take care of the pets we already have (fish and our cat) on his own, without reminding, for 30 days. Even with a re-start halfway through due to an extended visitation with his dad, he didn’t fulfill it. And then his grandparents and his father lovingly (?) provided him with the gift of enough money to buy the snake – a couple hundred dollars. My son called me from vacation, gushing with enthusiasm and holding the snake he’d fallen in love with, and I had to tell him no. I said to him (over the phone!) that we’d talked about the fact that pets mean responsibility, and he hadn’t shown that he was ready for that responsibility, so we, as a mom-and-boy team, had to stick to what we know is true. So no snake, but that we/I would revisit it again another time, when he’s showing me he is more responsibile. And now, with the cell phone, he remembers the snake conversation and although he asks often, he seems to get it that the answer is no, and why. Hope this story helps – tough love, but it works.

  5. Great ideas! We limit purchases of gadgets and such to only birthdays and Christmas. In fact, my rising 5th grader just received her 1st cell phone for her birthday. She has high functioning autism and spends time away from home so I felt it was a necessity. She has a base model, no camera, no frills, prepaid phone, and she realizes she has to demonstrate responsibility with that one if she ever wants an upgrade. She has misplaced it several times, forgotten to charge it, forgotten to take it with her, forgotten to turn the ringer on, BUT it’s only been a month, she hasn’t lost it, it’s not broken, and she’s being very frugal with her minutes as well. I have to say that I can’t base her ability to care for one thing (ie. her room) on her ability to care for something else. Her special needs do affect her ability to stay neat and organized and to remember where she put things. But overall she’s a good kid who tries really hard to do the right thing. It is that combined with practical needs that prompted our cell phone purchase.

  6. My fifth grader is on the cell phone campaign. I just see no reason for her to have one yet. She would just use it to chat with her friends and after overhearing some of those chats and having a good chuckle, I know for sure she doesn’t need a cell phone yet. But more importantly for me, we really DO NOT know the physical effects of the phone on our bodies, our brain and the less access she has to a cell phone next to her developing brain, the better. I’d rather she keep downloading music on her Ipod and belting out those songs singing to the hairbrush in her bedroom……

  7. Tiyanasmom says:

    This is the answer I have prepared. “No. You are responsable and smart and I want to keep you that way. Cell phones emit dangerous radiowaves that cause brain tumors, sterility, genetic damage, hormonal damage and other serious health effects. I know a lot of your friends use cell phones, but they are going to pay dearly for it in years to come. Nothing is more important to me than your health.”

    • Thank you for that! I was beginning to think I was the only parent out there who was thinking this!

  8. Thanks for the article and the play-by-play script! It was really helpful.

  9. Thank you for this article. There are several views to the cell phone campaign. My son’s father and I are not together. However, last year we purchased a cell phone for our eight year old son. As parents, we consistently teach responsibility with his homework, chores, etc. Our decision to provide him a phone was a way to communicate specifically with us and family members. We are able to provide blocks from outside calls (within the phone itself) and only restrict calls from the contacts that we add to his phone. In addition, his cellphone use only adds to his ability to communicate with us. He learned how to take and send pictures, text us, if necessary, and call us at any given moment (within reason).
    In addition, as parents, we also need to learn that neither child nor adult should manipulate the situation. We should remember that any given situation should not be reminiscent of our past as children–with restrictions (if any) that were placed on us.
    I support the idea that the approach to earned privileges is beautiful, where debates, attacks, and criticisms are not held. We place the burden on our children.

  10. Hi,

    My son began asking in 6th grade. Though he is a very responsible kid, I didn’t think he needed one. However, I told him when there are 3 incidences that having a cell phone would have resolved a situation we would buy him one. During the summer after 7th grade we had reached the 3rd incidence.

    We gave him a basic freebie phone and when he dropped it in the toilet, he bought a phone from craigs list for $20.

    When his father bought a new phone, 2 yrs later, he got a 2 for 1 deal and he finally got a brand new phone. Which he takes much better care for.

  11. The title of this message caught my eye. I’ve been listening to a CD lecture by a well-known speaker on the Jewish speaking circuit, who lambasts all of us for our combined anti-social cell phone habits. In particular he chastises parents for being poor role models for our children to emulate when it comes to cell phone use/abuse.
    Thank you for also addressing this widespread problem.

  12. I love this article – how can I PRINT it and keep it taped to my refrigerator????

    • Laura:

      I am pleased to hear you loved it. Two options would be to click and drag your cursor over the text, when it is highlighted, click copy, and the open up a blank word processing document and
      and click paste. That should work. You are also welcome to email me (address that the end of the article), and I will send it to you. Alan

  13. Katina Mooneyham says:

    There were several factors involved in my decision to give my oldest (now almost 17–then 15) a cell phone. One was that when she was at her father’s house (we are divorced–I’m now remarried) she didn’t have a reliable form of communication with me. Another factor was we could actually afford this phone on our plan and decided it was a good deal to get it. I believe(d) that she was responsible enough for the cell phone. She tells me every time someone she does not know calls and is honest about who and when she calls. Besides, I told her I could check out that information anyway with our call logs that we can get online.

    Now, my almost eleven year old is communicating interest in a cell phone. While we aren’t sure yet, I will take this article into consideration when we do make the ultimate and final decision for a cell phone.


    Katina Mooneyham

  14. great article and thought. Have tried my best to follow the same idea when my child was young but he did not shape up just gave up. it did not matter to him that he did not have what he wanted to. He did not get phone till he was to go away on a trip, he did not get laptop untill highschool graduation money management it still an issue so gets only monthly pocket money and still runs out and then sits in dorm room for last ten days of the month every month. says he understand but but actions don’t change much. Do I have bigger problem on my hand that I have refused to believe? He has ADHD and is fairly controlled with medication.

    • Neeta:

      I believe you are doing the right thing— it sounds like you are being consistent. At some point when the “the pain of changing becomes less than the pain of remaining the same,” and he gets sick and tired of creating his own problems, and he’ll shape up. But you need to be consistent, or your son will test and test.


  15. Michele says:

    I total disagree with your philosphy on when to allow a child a cell phone. My daughter is entering into the 7th grade. She is a responsible child; however, does she “need” a cell phone. NO. By giving in to her “wanting” a cell phone because “all her friends have them” is equivilant to adults wanting what the “Jones” have. I don’t feel there is much good that comes out of kids texting each other. There is too much bullying and harassment among kids as it is. Texting gives them another tool to do this. If my daughter wants to “talk” to her friends, she may do so from our home phone. As she becomes older and is given more freedom to go places unsupervised with friends, then yes, there will be a “need” for a cell phone, but not in 5th, 6th or 7th grade.

    • Michele:

      Thanks for commenting. I look forward to expressing my thoughts regarding these issues in my next Raising Small Souls article.


  16. great article… been saving it in my inbox and finally read it. one thought propels me to write: toward end of article it seems you are implying it mom’s fault for not checking the pockets before doing laundry. i suppose she is not checking because that is not part of the laundry job but ultimately the child’s responsibility to check pockets before throwing clothes into a hamper.