Children’s needs haven’t changed over the last several thousand years. Their basic surviving and thriving needs are still warmth and nourishment: being kept physically warm and nourished along with socially supported and extended. Without these, human children can die or at best struggle through life a shadow of what could have been their potential. But let’s look a bit deeper into this. Firstly, what is a need?

A need is something that we cannot do without, that is required to be met (most of the time) in order for us to live a reasonable life. When all of our needs are met most of the time, we have a high chance of reaching our full genetic potential. Our needs being met provides the ideal environment for us to be all that we can be.

All human beings have the potential to be confident, competent and contributing members of society – right from birth. Our one proviso is that we have certain needs which, luckily for our child selves, adult humans are intuitively programmed to meet. A baby’s facial and bodily proportions are such that we adults find them “cute”, inspiring us to care for these tiny beings. A baby’s cry calls us to act, to meet their need. Our whole brain and body make up allows us to mirror the production of love hormones our babies are also producing such that we wish to be near them, to hold them close, to gaze into their eyes and care for them. We are well designed to meet our children’s needs. So where are things going awry, with so many children’s needs not being adequately met?

Since human beings have such a large capacity for rational thought, we have the ability to ignore our instincts and instead to choose another course of action. Our biology may be calling to us to go to our young when they are crying but our logical brain areas can choose to block these messages and begin to justify why our baby will do well to be left alone. Just like with any brain functions, practice makes perfect, so the more we ignore these intuitions the better we get at ignoring them. After a while it can be difficult to access them at all.

Many of our children (and us also) have even been taught early on to ignore their instinctive understanding about themselves and others: “You’re alright” children are often told when they’re clearly not currently alright (though we adult-rationally know that they will be soon), and “You’re not full yet, eat some more.” I often notice my desire to encourage my children to override their own feelings and understandings and go along with what I believe is the case instead.

The other issue we have is confusion over what is a “need” and what is a “want”. I’m totally clear now that babies, children and adults all “need” to feel safe in order to live a full and happy life. For this to occur they must be kept physically and socially warm and nourished – this in turn supports their emotional and intellectual development. So a child who is calling for help and having no-one come is not being kept socially warm. A baby who is not being interacted with regularly and appropriately to build their pro-social skills is not being socially nourished. These are needs for us because we are an interdependent species, heavily reliant on others in our species to work together with so we can all survive and thrive together. Babies and children need at least one adult who is irrationally committed to their welfare, who is tuned into these physical and social needs and has the ability to meet them, most of the time.

A “want” is something that we can absolutely do without, even though we may not “want” to. Some wants may appear to enhance our experience of life but getting wants met will not make us better people, or reach a greater potential. As long as our needs are met, then our potential is covered. Toys are wants. Sweets are wants. Not having to deal with difficult situations for which we are responsible are wants. Pretty much all of the stuff we have in our houses are wants.

Contrary to popular belief a child doesn’t “want” attention. Being the interdependent species we are, if a child is calling for attention (in whatever way they’re currently trying to do this), their call is, in fact, a need. How we choose to respond to this request makes a huge difference to the child’s development, particularly their appreciation of themselves and understanding of how human beings interact with each other. If the need is met effectively then there will not be any drive to repeat the call. No-one chooses to stay locked in a need for a need. They will move on and call on us for their next need. Getting wants met however does seem to result in the desire for further wants. And underlying all of this desire for more, more, more, are a series of unmet needs. Hidden. Lost amongst the confusion between rational thought and instinctive drive. Underneath any repetitive, exhausting want is an unmet need. That goes for adults as much as it does for children. The key is to uncover that need and effectively resolve it.

Let’s review what children’s basic needs are:

  • Physical warmth – housing, clothing, protection from the elements
  • Nourishing food – real food
  • Social warmth – physical and emotional safety provided by at least one adult the child can rely on to be there and support them
  • Social nourishment – adult/s providing the necessary physical, emotional and intellectual environment such that the child can develop their understanding of themselves, others and the wider world and build on their ability to function effectively in this interdependent world

Once every child has these needs met most of the time – wow – what a world this will be!