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A Fun Way to Teach Kids the Difference between Wants and Needs


If you’re a parent, you’re probably no stranger to hearing your child say, “I want.” There’s always a new toy, pair of shoes, outfit, or something that they want. But how many of these things do they need? Is there a difference? Does it even matter if there’s a difference between wants and needs? The answer to both of those questions is yes.

It matters because if we don’t explain the difference to them and just continue buying the next “want,” they’ll end up believing “I want, therefore I need.” This mentality can lead to many issues, including financial ones, once they’re living on their own. It can also lead to a feeling of entitlement. If you want to raise self-sufficient, successful kids, this is a feeling we want to avoid.

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between wants and needs, though. For example, right now, I really want the following:

  1. Breakfast (it’s early in the morning)
  2. A vacation
  3. A less busy life

I would even say that I need all three! Breakfast, of course, is a necessity, so I have the energy for the rest of the morning. And with all the ups and downs of life, who doesn’t feel like they need a vacation and a less busy life?

What We Think We Need Is Often a Want

But what do I really need? This is the hard part. Breakfast, yes! A vacation would really be nice, I can see it now … relaxing on the beach. A less busy life would, of course, allow me to take that vacation.

All of these wants are real needs! Right?

If I’m being honest, my list of needs is more about wants. Granted, food is a true need, as we need food to survive, but if I missed breakfast today, I’d be able to manage until lunch.

Do you see how tricky it can be to decipher a need from a want. Because of this, it’s important to help our children see the difference between wants and needs early in life, so they don’t grow up with a view of “I want, therefore I need!”

But it’s not easy to make the hard decisions about real needs vs. wants because most of us, including our kids, aren’t really clear about the difference. 

Values Should Determine Wants and Needs

Knowing the difference between wants and needs and sticking to your values (and budget) about needs vs. wants is especially difficult this time of year when the holidays are upon us and ad agencies are doing their best—whether on social media, streaming content, the radio, or TV—to make us think we NEED what they’re selling.

And they’re not just focused on us. They’re focused on our kids too!

Ad agencies use well-researched psychology to create advertising campaigns that are designed to make us open our wallets for their products believing they are not just wants but absolute needs.

As an organization, we know this happens firsthand because, early in her career, RF co-founder Elane worked for a global marketing and advertising firm, and that was exactly her job, to use the psychological research of the time in her day-to-day campaign development work.

As parents who likely aren’t doing much in-depth psychological research of our own, that’s pretty difficult to compete with.

Especially when our kids see something at the store that looks cool, and then they see their friends with it and decide it’s not just a wanted item but something they desperately need for status amongst their peers.

To further complicate matters, our kids don’t always have a good sense about money. They don’t understand that we have a set amount each month to pay our bills, buy groceries, save for retirement, etc. and don’t have an endless supply of money to purchase the next must-have toy, device, or pair of limited edition sneakers.

Examples of Wants and Needs

While not everything we need (someone who cares about us, friendship, love and affection, less stress, good health, a simple hug, and much more) costs something, we definitely need money to live life the way we want!

In the end, it’s all about deciding where to spend our money AND helping our kids learn early on about how to make these choices when it comes to their own individual needs vs. wants.

One of the best ways to do this is to start by thinking about needs as things you must have to survive.

Needs fall into these categories:

  • food
  • shelter
  • clothing
  • safety
  • healthcare
  • emotional support

Wants are something other than those categories, things you would like to have but do not need to survive.

Wants fall into these categories:

  • everything that is not a need
  • things that are often still important for mental and emotional health

Of course, there are things that can fall into both categories—cookies are food, but they are clearly wants, not needs. An RV provides shelter, but so does a tent when you go on vacation. Those who sell designer clothing want you to believe they fit the needs category, but no one needs a $250 pair of shoes.

When it comes to emotional support, though, everyone needs a hug!

So how do you help your kids, particularly your teens, understand the difference between wants and needs when marketing firms and influencers are competing against you and your family values.

For starters, you stop thinking about how much something costs as the basis for determining whether it is a want or a need. If your family is fortunate enough to have more discretionary spending money than most, taking that approach tends to skew the wants vs. needs thought process.

Instead, use your values (beliefs on what is important) to determine wants and needs. Using your values allows you to make much better decisions.

Defining wants and needs

Learn About Wants and Needs with a Game

To help you get the discussion going on not only the difference between wants and needs but also the important things in your life that you really need to feel good, safe, and taken care of, try our game:

Materials needed: timer, paper, pen or pencil

How to play: 

  1. Explain to your child what a need is and then what a want is. Use our definitions and the categories that fall into each one that are listed above.
  2. Then, go into your child’s room with them. (If you have more than one child, make it a family game and pick one bedroom to start in.)
  3. Set the timer for 20 seconds (or longer, depending on the age of your child; a younger child will need more time). Ask your child to look around and write down as many needs as they can in the allotted time. Make your own list while they are making theirs.

    *If you have a young child who is not writing yet, adjust the game and call items out as they are spotted. See who can spot the next need item first. 

  4. When the timer goes off, compare your lists. Who came up with the most items? Go through each of your lists and discuss each item. Ask your child what would happen if they didn’t have it. Tip: Use examples from your own belongings if they aren’t grasping the concept yet.
  5. After discussing an item, decide if it really is a need. If it is, leave it on the list. Each need is one point. 
  6. If the item is not a need, then cross it off. If your child identifies something they decide is not a need or even a want anymore, consider collecting items for donation.
  7. A point is earned for each item that is decided to be a need after your discussion. Whoever has the most points when you are done playing wins!
  8. If your lists are not long, set the timer again and see what else can be added or move to another room.
  9. Bonus: Depending on your budget and family values, you can start using their newfound knowledge and understanding to more thoughtfully and critically discuss the upcoming holidays and what might be on their wish lists.

Learning the Difference between Wants and Needs Is a Life Skill

As your children grow, you’ll need to revisit wants vs. needs as their interests change.

But by giving your children a good foundation and understanding of the difference between wants and needs and your family’s values, you’ll be preparing them to make good decisions for themselves when you aren’t there to help them.

If you’re looking for help exploring what your family values are, our workbook Values Are at the Root of Everything: A Family Values Workbook can help.

Now that you’re clear about the difference between wants and needs, you can talk with your child about their holiday wishlist and decide if the items are a want or need and if they’re a want, if they are a good match with your family values and budget.

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Rick Stephens

Rick Stephens is a co-founder of Raising Families. With 33 years of experience as a top-level executive at The Boeing Company and having raised four children of his own, he is able to support parents and grandparents by incorporating his knowledge of business, leadership, and complex systems into the family setting.

In his free time Rick enjoys road biking, scuba diving, visiting his grandkids, and generally trying to figure out which time zone he’s in this week. Read full bio >>