How to teach kids the difference between needs and wants

Psychologist and mum, Ellen Jackson, shares 4 strategies to help you explain this challenging and important topic with your kids.

Mum and daughter hugging

Teaching children the difference between needs and wants can be challenging. If you are mum or dad to a child over two years old you will have heard the protest, ”But I need it!” It could be anything from chocolate at breakfast to the latest tech toy; kids tend not to discriminate between desire and necessity. They want it and they want it now!

As the grown up you’ll find yourself saying, “No, you don’t need it. You can’t have it,” on repeat – only to fall on deaf ears. The demands and insistence get louder and more indignant until you’re faced with a full tantrum, or there’s a swift turn on a heel, a slammed door and sulking for hours. Either way it’s a frustrating and unsatisfactory outcome for everyone.

So how do you teach kids the difference between wants and needs? Obviously the approach will differ depending on the age of the child but here are four strategies that might help at any age.

1. Thinking skills 

If you teach your children to think critically you give them a skill for life. Critical thinking is the ability to objectively analyse a situation and evaluate the options in order to solve a problem or make the best decision. For very small children distraction and asking for other options can work. For example, “No, we don’t need chocolate for breakfast but what else could we have that’s healthy and yummy?”

With older children and teens the trick is to get them to think through the consequences or to consider the alternatives. For example, “If we buy this now, what will happen when you want something new on your birthday and the money has been spent?”

Asking kids questions and allowing them to come to their own conclusions about what they need versus want is a more effective lesson than just telling them “No.”

2. Do as I say and as I do

As scary as it may be, our kids learn largely from what we do. They model their behaviour on ours. In fact, experts in child development suggest that children from as young as one observe, process and mimic the actions and behaviour of the adults in their lives. If you hear yourself saying, ”I need it” on a daily basis, that’s the message that they will hear and that’s exactly what they will repeat to you. 

Try rephrasing your own ”I need” to ”I would really like,” ”I will put money aside for,” and ”Perhaps I can settle for this alternative?” You’ll be sending the right message to your kids and you might find you’re happy with less yourself.

3. Share and donate

Throughout the year there are opportunities to get kids involved in sharing what they have with other children who are less fortunate. Whether it’s family sponsorship of a child so they can buy school books, donating toys to a charity store or placing a gift under a wishing tree at Christmas, when you get the kids actively involved in these activities and let them make choices and decisions you help them to realise that they may already have everything they need.

4. Money management

Giving kids pocket money or an allowance that they must use to cover some of life’s essentials is a fantastic way to teach them the value of money and how to manage it. Your eleven year old son may want to buy a video game but he needs to pay for his bus fare each day. Put him in charge of his money and he’ll quickly work out that it’s a long walk to school when the money is gone.

Want help getting your little one interested in saving? Visit our Kids Banking page for lots of tips and to get started on setting up their very own savings account. 

Ellen Jackson is a psychologist, author, blogger and mum to two boys.  She writes about everyday psychology at

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