I find discourse on the ‘needs’ of children troubling at times. By which I don’t mean that children don’t have needs. Unquestionably they do. Water, for example, is something that all human children undeniably and clearly need. What I mean is that talking about children’s ‘needs’ seems to enable the speaker to slip a whole lot of personal opinion, ideals and values in the back door and present it as unquestionable fact. This doesn’t mean that the opinions, ideals and values are wrong, or not worth pursuing. But it creates confusion. It makes it possible to ruthlessly stamp people who may disagree into the ground. It makes it seem as if there’s only one option. This is especially problematic because children’s own descriptions of their needs are not taken seriously. So it is adults who define what children do or do not need and we can pass off almost anything as a need. We can even pass off as a need experiences that children themselves strenuously object to! To see how this might be a problem, consider what men have said about the needs of women, or what white colonisers have said about the needs of Indigenous Peoples. The human race doesn’t have a good track record for being able to talk insightfully and truthfully about the needs of others.
So what are we really saying when we talk about ‘needs’?
What are we really saying, for example, when we say that children need to learn to sleep in their own bed? Or that children need to learn to control their emotional reactions? Or that children need to sit still and pay attention?
It seems to me that all of these statements are personal opinion, ideals and values masquerading as objective truths. Again, I am not saying that the personal opinions, ideals and values are wrong or not worth pursuing. But notice the difference between:
Children need to learn to sit still and pay attention
I think it is wise to teach children to sit still and pay attention because we are living in a culture where children receive extensive formal education, and education predicts later success. Being able to sit still and pay attention will help your child to get the most out of school.
It feels quite different doesn’t it? The second is clearly a personal opinion, driven by specific values applied in a particular cultural context. To me, it feels open, flexible and adaptable. As if there are other options. In contrast, the first statement hits me like a sledgehammer.
So, what can we legitimately describe as a need? Obviously, anything a child would die without can be classed as a need, so oxygen, water and food. I think we could also classify as a need anything that has been shown to be beneficial for children in the long-term (i.e. anything that predicts physical and psychological health and wellbeing) AND that children deliberately seek and enthusiastically consume given the opportunity. So, I think we can sensibly talk about children needing parental attention or proximity to attachment figures or social interaction or pretend play. Children seek those experiences with relish. But I don’t think we can legitimately talk about children needing to learn to sleep in their own bed, or control their emotional reactions, or pay attention… Of course, we can argue for the wisdom of teaching children these skills, in our particular cultural context, based on our individual values. But that should be an honest discussion about values, opinions and ideals. Not a ruthless push of a particular worldview with confusing and guilt-making talk about the ‘needs’ of children.
Apply it to your life: Be on the lookout for discussion on the ‘needs’ of children. Are they discussing genuine needs, or are they using ‘needs’ talk to push a particular opinion? Of course, that doesn’t mean the opinion is wrong, you may well agree with it! But is it helpful to confuse the issue with talk of ‘needs’?