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The Nature and Needs of Children

With the seemingly endless number of books, blogs and advice columns about the raising of children, why do we see so many disruptive kids in restaurants and church?  Why do teachers have more difficulty now than in the past maintaining order in the classroom?  Why do so many mothers describe parenting as the most difficult thing they’ve ever done?

When I first began parenting,  I still thought of myself as being 18, and didn’t really see myself as any kind of authority figure.  I was shocked by my first child’s willingness to disobey!  As a child, I had dreaded the disapproval of my parents, and always tried to figure out what would keep me out of trouble.  Now I was faced with a child who seemed perfectly willing to endure anything, as long as she could do as she pleased!  Surely there were parenting techniques I could learn that would help.

I read lots of “experts”, but unfortunately, the “experts” just muddied the waters.  I read that my child’s self-esteem should not be damaged, that I needed to learn to talk and listen in certain ways, and that if I wasn’t careful, my daughter might end up with  a variety of neuroses and complexes.  I read that I should try to understand my child’s motives for her behavior, and that putting her in “time out” was an effective consequence for misbehavior.  Some said spank, some said it would absolutely lead her to be violent.  I read that I needed to understand her “learning style,” that I should consider modifying her diet, and that some children misbehave because of ADD, ADHD, or ODD.  How in the world would I ever figure this out?  What was I missing?

Spinning child
Child Got Your Head Spinning?

What I was missing, and what I didn’t realize until many years and a few children later, was an understanding of the true nature and needs of children–not just my children, but all children.


All human beings are born completely dependent on those around them to meet their physical needs.  Their primary motivation is to demand vociferously that these needs be met.  They are not capable of focusing on the world around them, and do not care if their needs are in conflict with you, your schedule, or your needs.  They are fundamentally self-absorbed.  This does not change on its own–if left to themselves, children will always choose what they want, regardless of whether or not it’s good for them, and regardless of the consequences to anyone else.  This is not to say they are not capable of affection, only that they are childish–they are inclined to do foolish things, to take what is not theirs, to deceive to get what they want, and lie to cover their tracks, simply because they are children.

In the past, this fact of human nature was universally accepted; no one was shocked by childish behavior, nor did they feel any need to explain it away by assigning the child to a specific category.  Consequently, childrearing was focused on correcting the false impression in children that they and their needs are at the center of the universe, and in training them through instruction, correction, and practice how to put aside their own needs and desires for the good of others.  In the past, parents understood that they, as adults, had to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and lead their children.  This was a fundamentally civilizing process, and made it possible for children to emerge into adulthood as actual adults, not just chronologically advanced adolescents.  To deny the fundamental self-centeredness of human nature, attributing to children some inborn wisdom or goodness, is to do them and the rest of the world a serious disservice.

Unfortunately, modern childrearing techniques have focused so much on making children feel good,  building their “self-esteem”, helping them avoid frustration and failure, “bad” grades, or conflict of any kind, that children often grow up actually believing that the most important thing is their own personal happiness.  All too often, children enter adulthood as chronologically advanced adolescents, continuing to view themselves as the center of the universe,  so focused on themselves and their own feelings that they are incapable of the genuine self-sacrifice required in any healthy relationship.  They’ve learned certain socially acceptable behaviors, and they may have a decent education or possess technological skills, but too often they are essentially stunted in emotional and social maturity.


Parents of the “old school” understood the nature of children, and made it their mission in life to disabuse children of the destructive notion that they were “special”.  Mind you, they loved their children, and their children knew it, but they understood what children need from adults, and they gave it to them.

Children need parents who are adults.  They don’t need buddies,  moms who are “involved” or dads whose primary interaction with them is playing video games.  They don’t need their self-esteem to be “affirmed”–they’re born filled with self-esteem. (NOTE:  I do acknowledge there are children who’ve been victims of soul-damaging abuse; this kind of situation would require very careful attention, and probably assistance from a professional psychologist.)

Children need men and women who see childishness as something children need to be set  free of, not something for adults to emulate; they need men and women who don’t care about looking “cool” and are willing to endure their children’s displeasure, who have enough self-discipline to get up on time, go to work, and pay their bills, and who treat others with genuine respect.

Children need firm, loving instruction in what it means to be a good human being:  how to work hard and do your best, how to be honest with oneself and with others, how to do what’s right when it’s difficult, and how to put your own wants aside for the benefit of someone else.  They need to understand that there are always negative consequences for bad behavior, and that yes, there are things that are unquestionably bad, regardless of how someone else may excuse or justify them–there are absolutes.

Until a parent gets these things settled in his own mind, he will be ineffective, thrashing around in an attempt to assess his child’s motives for misbehavior, or how certain things make his child “feel”, or always looking to food allergies, ADD, a teacher, immunizations, other children, etc, ad infinitum, as the cause of whatever childish behavior their child is exhibiting.  Like me!

I had to put away childish things and become a grown-up.  I began to accept the truth about my children–they were prone to foolishness and needed me to guide them!  I had to take on the responsibility to lovingly correct and train my children–no more excuses for disruptive behavior at restaurants or in church, for refusal to go to bed, for meltdowns in stores, or for unwillingness to pay attention and mind the teacher in school.  Yes, sometimes this sort of thing still happened–it takes time to correct and train children.  But until I understood and accepted the fundamentally self-centered nature of my children and their need to be set free of it, I was totally ineffective as a parent.  I might as well have been their 18-year old babysitter, hoping for the best, but mostly doing whatever it took to keep them happy.

Parents, it’s time to be a grown-up if you aren’t already!  Toss all the magazines and parenting books, and stop trying to figure out your child’s “reasons” for the way he behaves.  He behaves childishly because he’s a child!  He needs you to lead him out of childishness.

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