When I was in school, I had many professors teach about Abraham Maslow. He had a huge impact on psychology and many of his theories and studies have become the foundation for much of the work that we do with clients. One of his theories on motivation stated that we, as humans, are motivated not just by rewards or unconscious desires. He stated that we are motivated to achieve certain needs. What came of this idea was dubbed the hierarchy of needs. It’s basically a food group triangle but instead of grains, vegetables, and fruits, we have biological/physiological needs, safety needs, and love/belongingness needs among others. This makes a lot of sense to me seeing as how it would be difficult for a person to achieve intimacy with a friend or loved one if that same person is hungry (actually hungry- not skipped lunch hungry) or hadn’t slept in 2 weeks. Children operate much in the same way I think. The only difference is, children require care; they don’t come out of the womb ready to survive and take on the world all by themselves. After the bottom tier of the needs hierarchy is “achieved” (being fed, clothed, and kept warm), the 6 things that all children need sort of get all mashed together into one, large tier until they grow up.
The first thing all children need is acceptance. Acceptance by parents is the basis for forming a positive relationship from which they are able to learn to like and accept themselves. You can show acceptance through simple gestures that may seem mundane but often have a significant impact on children. For example, separate the deed from the doer. Looks like this: instead of “you are a bad kid”, go for “you made a bad decision”. See the difference?
Next may seem a bit obvious- Attention and love. Attention, along with acceptance, is what a child needs to feel loved, and is what is important for developing rapport with your children and positive feelings about self. As most of you parents may know, children WILL get attention- whether good or bad, they’ll get it. Their style of seeking attention and learning what gets them that attention will become a part of their self-image. Spend time with your child. It’s about quality, not quantity. Try this: ignore the unwanted behavior and praise, praise, praise the wanted behavior. I know, I know- you can’t ignore a kid taking a Sharpie to the wall. But take time to notice the little things your child does. Think about it. Nobody really pays a whole lot of attention to the child who’s sitting quietly, playing nicely, or uses good manners. It’s the kid who’s rowdy, out of control, or talks back who gets the attention. Tell your kid how awesome it is when they say “thank you” or “yes ma’am/yes sir”!
Next is security and safety. Yes, this is on Maslow’s original hierarchy of needs, but it looks a bit different with children. Assuming that the child already has “safety”- as in a roof over their head, no tigers chasing them, and not living in the streets of a post-apocalyptic city- boundaries and clear expectations are what we’re talking about here. Children need to know where you draw the line. Now, it is completely developmentally appropriate for children to push those boundaries- it’s what they are supposed to do! But parents, it is SO important for you to stand firm. The second that you allow a behavior that was once against the rules, your child now knows that you can be pushed past that old boundary. And trust me, it’ll only get worse from there. If your child doesn’t know where a boundary is, then there’s really no point of it being set. Make your expectations clear and consistent!
The forth thing all children need is understanding. Communicate. Listen. Get on their level and demonstrate interest and mutual respect- this encourages each of you to express your feelings and opinions openly and without fear of rejection. This includes problem-solving with your child. If your child comes home from school sad and looking dejected, your first instinct might be to call the mother of whomever did this and chew her out. But sometimes all kids need is your presence. Sit down next to your child and let them know simply that you care- “Oh man Sarah that must’ve really hurt your feelings. I’m so sorry honey.” You may sit in silence for the next 30 minutes but YOU ARE PRESENT. And that’s what is important.
Next is discipline. Create structure in your home by determining appropriate expectations. Much of what goes into discipline aligns with providing safety and security. Make sure the punishment fits the crime and stay consistent; not only with the punishments, but also between parents. Easiest and most common way to manipulate parents? Figure out which one will let you get away with the most and only ever ask that parent for permission. Your children can put a wedge between you and your spouse very quickly- unwittingly, of course.
Finally, children need values. Values are one of those subjects that are not easily taught in a lecture type setting. Can you imagine sitting your child down with a Power Point behind you and saying “Today I am going to teach you about kindness.” No! Values are best taught through what we call experiential learning. Your children watch what you do. So next time you’ve dragged little Billy to the dry cleaners with you and they have lost all of your clothes, try your hardest not to snap completely. Instead, opt for calm, cool communication to resolve the matter- your little Billy will learn that biting the dry cleaner’s head off in a fit of rage doesn’t get your clothes back. But being polite and respectful might get you a refund and payment for the amount of what your clothing costs. When it comes to teaching our children values, actions often speak louder than words.