How to Teach Your Kids to Discern Wants and Needs


August 7, 2018

It took a recent trip to the store to get a reality check for my daughter and I. Walking  down the large department store aisles, she piped up with, “But what are we going to buy for me?” When I asked her to clarify what she meant, she excitedly exclaimed that we “always get a toy!” Where were those lessons about wants and needs?

I sheepishly realized I had set us into a dangerous pattern. In her young mind, a trip to our favorite store meant a trinket, a lollipop, or a treat for her. I thought I was an intentional parent. But, I was uncomfortable with the idea that she wasn’t remembering our little chats about wants and needs. Time to get back to basics.

Here are just some of the ideas we re-instituted in our home to promote our shared values:

We created “wants” and “needs” poster boards.

A visual way to show the differences between items that are fun , and ones we really need to live. We cut out pictures of houses, clothing, food, toys, shoes, and books. Then, we pasted them on two sides of a large piece of poster-board. We also talked about how a want for one person could be a need for someone else. For example, when one child needs shoes, but the other doesn’t because hers still fit.

We work together to determine if what our kids ask for is a want or a need.

Our older daughter recently asked for a brand-new pair of fancy, glittery sneakers. She already had several pairs of beautiful, new-ish shoes. So, we asked her to explain why they were a want or a need. She shared that her friends had similar pairs. Together, we got out all the shoes she owned. She was then able to see a visual representation of how many pairs she actually had, and how the fancy ones were actually a want.  Verbalizing this topic helped her understand and became a meaningful dialogue, instead of us merely saying no. Talking about and seeing concepts also employs multi-sensory learning, which can enhance memory in young children (Source).

We involve our girls in sorting through their bedrooms and closets.

One exercise that has really helped with determining wants and needs is sorting through all their toys. A few times a year, we get out every toy they own. Yep, all of them! Then, we line them up on a bed or floor. Then, we even ask them if they have purchased or saved for any of those toys themselves. Often, the ones that were saved up for were the ones they love and take care of most. This exercise also drives home the point that some of the things they “wanted” so badly were forgotten or broken within a few days. They usually end up thinking more carefully about new ones they ask for in the future.

We discuss wants and needs, even at mealtime.

Research shows that women are more likely to be binge eaters. This can also be linked to poor self control in other areas of life (spending, poor time management). We work hard to cultivate a healthy relationship with food for our children by modeling appropriate portions and eating intentionally.

In her book “My Kids Eat Everything”, Susan Roberts explains that wastefulness and overeating occurs when children are passively eating and aren’t connected to their meals. We have noticed our girls snack less mindlessly and eat less junk when we involve them in cooking and shopping. That is because they feel invested and part of the process. Mealtimes are another opportunity to display wants and needs where it relates to desserts, snacking, and unhealthy foods; they are something we don’t need, but sometimes want. That doesn’t mean we don’t indulge in a tasty dessert or candy bar here and there. But, our girls know that they don’t truly “need” dessert every night.

We use checklists when shopping and we take the girls with us.

I created simple shopping lists with items we buy often, staples such as milk, bread, cheese, meat, and vegetables. I printed them off the computer and then laminated each page to create a portable, write-on, wipe-off shopping list. Each girl gets a pen at the store, and they are able to focus on the things we need at the store, and check them off one by one. When they ask for something that is more of a want (such as treats, candy, or toys), they draw it on the opposite side. When we reach the checkout with our set budget amount, they are able to see which items we can afford and which ones that are not a necessity. Occasionally, if we are under-budget, we are able to add a “want” to our purchases, but it solidifies that we can’t always say yes to extras.

The concept of wants and needs isn’t easy to explain to a four and six year old, but these simple steps keeps the conversation at the forefront in our home. It has become a natural part of our lives, and we even catch the girls gently reminding each other if a fancy dress or pair of shoes is a want or a need. Whenever we find things have tipped “out of balance”(like it did in our little shopping trip), we try to refer back these ideas to refresh their memories.

You might also like:


We’re on a Mission

At inherQuests, we believe that financial literacy is a basic life skill that everyone should be taught at a young age.

Learn More