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How to Battle the “I Want” Syndrome

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Sesame Street Toy StoreMy son is four and has been attending preschool for the past two years. When my husband and I were the sole caregivers, it was much easier to shelter him from consumer influences and keep his desire for endless amounts of stuff at bay. However, as he becomes more immersed in the school “culture” and makes more friends, he has started to notice more and more what other people have. And sometimes, this results in his yearning to have what they have.

In short, the “I Wants” have hit our house hard over the past year, and will most likely continue until we boot him out of our house after high school (and maybe even longer than that…). So I’ve had to think creatively about how to counter the constant “I Want…” reasonably and without resorting to “Because I Said So” every time!. Out of necessity and the preservation of my sanity, I’ve developed a few techniques I use when explaining that we can’t always get what we want, in four year old terms.

Teach in Terms Your Child Understands

Translate the value of money in terms your child understands. For a long time after my first was born, I would say things to him that he found meaningless because I wasn’t used to thinking in “child” terms. Telling a two year old that we were leaving a playdate in five minutes wasn’t giving him any information that he could understand. Why I was befuddled when a tantrum ensued when I brought him his coat every time is beyond me. But luckily I’ve learned a few things in the ensuing two years, and one of them is that it’s important to break down abstract concepts into concrete terms that are applicable to my kids’ lives.

When he wants something, I use items he already has to explain what it costs. We still talk about money, but I put it into terms of “That robot your friend has and you want would be like giving up five of your matchbox cars and your favorite dump truck, is it still something that is important to you?”

Teach About Choices

If your child is old enough, you can give your child some of the responsibility for making choices. Giving your child an allowance can help with this. If your child wants something, show them what it costs in terms of weeks of allowance or what they may have saved already. This ties directly into putting money into terms that they understand. We are working on a sticker system to illustrate the passage of weeks for my son and give him an idea of how long he would need to “work” to afford something he wants. Oftentimes, the passage of time cures the urge of instant gratification and he decides he didn’t want that item as much as he thought he did!

Another big concept we are working hard on is instituting a toy, game, or other appropriate limit; and enforce a one in, one out rule. If your child wants to bring a new “something” into the house, they have to give up something else. This cuts down on clutter and teaches your child to make choices and trade-offs. Are they willing to trade the new for the old?

Teach Them How To Give

Finally, introduce the value of giving. Instead of agreeing to your child’s whims wholeheartedly, help them make choices to give to others. Taking advantage of a program such as Toys For Tots, and explaining to your child that there are others who don’t have toys and you are fortunate enough to be able to give toys to them. This may help your child understand that not everyone has the advantages they have. Instead of taking your child shopping for themself, take them shopping for something to give to a child less fortunate than they are. Understanding the power of sharing and giving to others is a lesson you can learn at any age.

Battling the constant “I Wants” can be tough. It is hard to find the line between not indulging your child’s every whim and teaching them to understand how to make thoughtful choices. With time and effort, your child may learn to save their wants for what is truly meaningful to them, and your ears may get a little break.

(Photo: luschei)

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9 Responses to “How to Battle the “I Want” Syndrome”

  1. Four is a tough age to try to reason with kids, especially with the bombardment of advertising aimed at them. Your sticker system looks interesting. I have teenagers, and I use the example of opportunity cost: If we buy the shiny new gadget, that’s an extra X hours that I have to work, or that’s less money that we can use for vacation. When they realize the consequences of their wants, they are more apt to back down.

  2. daniel says:

    great post!

  3. sara l says:

    Another way to add giving is to donate a toy when he gets something new. Maybe not every time, but if there’s something special that he gets then he has to choose something from his current toy collection to give to someone else.

  4. John says:

    Great post and I loved reading the tips, although I am still a couple of years from worrying about this.

    I do like one commenters suggestion of donating a toy when receiving a new one. Not only are they giving, they are also learning there is a consequence if they really want that new toy.

  5. Matt Fyffe says:

    Great list. It’s always something scary to me to imagine having a child and to instill a sense of values in them. However, your tips seem like a great way to cut down on selfish, consumer-driven behavior. Oh god help me when I have a child.

  6. Henry says:

    Not just for children; these are lessons many adults need to learn! Thanks for the post.

  7. kitty says:

    My mother’s reply to my “I want” have often been “Sure, please, continue to want. Have I ever forbidden you to want something?”

    Not at 4, mind you. But in general my parents were never shy of telling me “this is expensive, your mommy has to work that many hours to earn this money”. Of course, this was in a country where a nice doll could cost half of the day’s salary of an engineer, and people spent half a month salary for a half decent dress.

    I do agree about looking at one item’s cost in terms of what else can be bought for the same amount. This is the way I’ve been conditioned to look at things since childhood to the point that it has become automatic, and it really helps in learning to appreciate the value of money.

  8. Jorge says:

    I have a 7 and a 9 year old and couldn’t agree more with your approach. We started giving our kids an allowance last year and the “I wants” have completely disappeared. They typically want books (which is a good thing to want I suppose), and when they ask for one, I simply ask them if they have enough money saved. If they have the money, sometimes they will buy the book, but more often then not, they will stop, think about it for a minute and then say, “I’d rather see if I can get it at the library and save mymoney.” It’s amazing how their perspective changes once they have some skin in the game so to speak.

    I have some posts about kids & money back at my site if anyone is interested on my approach.

    Nice post!

  9. Meg54 says:

    I use the sticker system too! 10 stickers earns a small toy like a matchbox for my 4 year old son. It’s SOOO much nicer to say…you don’t have 10 stickers yet so No you can’t have that race car yet let’s count how many you need to earn. Its been a lifesaver at the store and he seems to get it that its not just mom saying no…his little brother does just as much in being a good helper and sticker earning as he does just by watching him! i’m glad you use this too!!


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