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Wants and Needs and the Value of Things

My son was eight. He’d found a clown at a street fair who was twisting balloons into poodles and giraffes. Never one to settle for the simple, my son asked the clown for an octopus.  I could see by the clown’s expression that he was thinking, “Great. An eight legged sea creature. Just what I wanted to make out of balloons while balancing on eight-foot stilts. I should have gone into bookkeeping” That clown was a trouper though. He smiled, blew up four balloons and started twisting away. Soon, there was a creature that had a big head and six legs. The clown handed it to my son. My son said, “It’s only got six legs.”

“Well,” said the clown, “it’s a six-topus.”

My daughter was four. She just wanted a poodle. It’s not every day a kid can make a clown happy.

While walking back to the car the six-topus suffered a heinous accident to one leg. “Well,” I said. “Now you have a pentopus.” Parenting is all about looking for the bright side. Parenting is also all about looking through the dictionary so you can make up words like pentopus.

My daughter’s poodle exploded for no discernible reason. That left my daughter with nothing but the shattered and torn remnants of a white balloon and a little clown spit in her hand. “Well,” I did not say, “now you have a corpse.” Parenting is all about not going over to the dark side. Instead, I said, “It pays not to get too attached to balloons.”

One weekend we hit the road for a three day trip. I’m a professional storyteller and tour often. When they can, my wife and kids join me. At one show a friendly old lady gave my daughter a handful of helium balloons. As we were getting into the van one of the balloons escaped. I watched the balloon head toward the clouds, and then I looked back at my daughter. Her face was locked into that silent, bitter, heartbreaking sob that only four-year-olds can manufacture. I thought she’d been stung by a wasp. Or bitten by a snake. Or that she had just seen her mother carried off by rabid camels. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

She gasped, pointed at the balloon disappearing into the sky, and managed to say, “Oh, Daddy, that… that… that was your favorite balloon!”

Up to that point I hadn’t realized that I had a favorite balloon. I thought I hated all balloons equally. I try not to get too attached to balloons. I thought fast. “No. No,” I said, “this is my favorite balloon.” I snatched a balloon from her remaining handful. “See?” I explained. “Mine has a white ribbon.” I pointed at the balloon now barely visible above the distant tree line. “That one has a blue ribbon.”

“Are you sure?” my daughter asked doubtfully.

“Sure I’m sure.” Parenting is all about lying. 

I’ve heard it said that if you have kids you should have a pet, one reason being that the pet will eventually die and then you can explain about loss and death to your kids. I’m not sure that that is the best reason to have a pet—certainly the pet might have something to say on the subject. We did have a great dog for years, and then he got sick and passed on. I guess it was good for the kids to learn that lesson. We didn’t get the dog just so he would die, but after many years he finally, and inevitably, did. We were attached to the dog.

The poor dog had a tumor on his head and it was obvious that he was ill. The obvious tumor didn’t do a thing for the dog, but it did make the dog’s plight easier to understand for the children. They could see that he was ill and thus it was easier to explain to the kids what was happening. When the dog, Buck-dog, eventually passed, the kids were ready for it. No one was happy about it, but everyone was prepared.

Balloons, on the other hand, are not as handy for teaching kids about loss and death. The main reason being that a balloon will be sitting there perfectly calm on the kitchen floor and then explode for no apparent reason at all. One second the balloon is there making us all happy, the next moment it is a choking hazard. This sort of violent demise seldom happens to domestic pets.

You can envision eventually saying to your kids, “Well, Granny got sick and died just like Buck-dog.” I seriously doubt that I will ever have to say, “Well kids, Granny just all of the sudden popped. One second she was sitting there, and the next…”  I’m not saying it won’t happen, I’m just saying I doubt it will happen. So, I advise my kids not to get too attached to balloons.


Little kids attach extreme importance to things adults think insignificant. What’s more, kids attach this value quickly and without obvious discretion. A stone, a penny, a balloon, an action figure, a stuffed animal, or blanket can instantaneously become the most important thing in the world. There will be no road trip, no bedtime, no going to Grandma’s until said object is found and secured.

Adults: It is important for children to value and take responsibility for their possessions. It is important for adults to teach kids which things are essential and which things can be lived without for the time being. Sometimes this can be done by helping the child understand what you are trying accomplish. “We are trying to go see a movie, young Suzi. You want to go see the movie, right? The movie starts in twenty minutes. If we don’t go now, we won’t be able to go at all. Can we look for your old, used, dirty, chewed-up but intrinsically valuable popsicle stick when we get home?” In many cases you can get your child to prioritize if they see the bigger picture. They might not be happy about it, but they’ll soon recover. Furthermore, kids forget quickly. There is a good chance little Suzi will have completely forgotten about the popsicle stick three minutes later.

Kids: Sometimes your adults just don’t get why things are important to you. Sometimes you have to explain it to them. There are times when you need to say, “That is not just a chewed up popsicle stick. That stick is from the popsicle Grandpa gave me when we visited his house last time.” Look around, kids. We adults have a ton of stuff. TVs, stoves, cars, stuff on the shelves, stuff in the closet, stuff on the floor. All of it means something to us. Do you remember a time when your mom or dad couldn’t find their keys or their wallet or cell phone or IPod? What did they do? They ran around the house throwing a fit, didn’t they? “Where’s my wallet? Who took my wallet?” If you think about it, they were acting just like you act when you lose something important. A wallet or a phone is an important thing that often has great value to your adult. But does that wallet have more value to your adult than your stuffed bear has to you? Nope. So, you may need to remind your adults, in a calm way, that what you own is just as important to you as what they own is to them.

Children screaming in a supermarket about an item THEY MUST HAVE can cause quiet a ruckus, but giving in only causes problems. Say “No” and press on with your shopping. Children need to know that not every want is a need. They need to learn thrift. Most importantly, they need to know that you have a stronger will than they. A three year old that gets everything they want every time they throw a fit is going to be one intolerable teenager.

One thing you need to get into your head as a parent is that you are raising your child to the best of your abilities. Set your standards, and don’t fret too much about what others think of your parenting style. If people in Target see me denying my child a toy she wants, and they think I am mean, oh well. I know what I’m trying to teach my kid, and I don’t care much what you think of me. I look at a sad, screaming child throwing a fit in the supermarket and just smile when the parent with them simply ignores the tantrum. That parent is raising a responsible child.

Adults: I look at it like this–stores are set up to make people want to buy things. You take a kid into a store and you are asking for a tantrum. The thing is, they throw the tantrum because they have a physical force—you—blocking the way to what they want. What about you? How hypocritical are you when you go into a store? What are you teaching your kids if you to say them, “We’re just going in to get a gallon of milk, three carriage bolts, and a ceiling fan.” And then along the way you decide you need a Maglite, a soda, some doughnuts, and a hairbrush. The only difference between yours and your child’s buy-impulse in that situation is that there is no one telling you, “You can’t buy that flashlight.” What if there was? What if you had to take an authority figure into the store who said, “Nope, you can’t have that.”

You would throw a fit. Keep that in mind. You need to model the kind of person you want your child to be.

Everyone has an idea and opinion on how you should raise your child. You and your spouse, partner, co-parent or you alone if you’re a single parent, need to decide on your approach and stick to it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be open to advice (I mean, here you are reading a book full of advice), but you need to stick to your guns. I’ve had to tell my own mother that while I appreciated her advice, I was also going to ignore it. I live with my kids every day and I know the methods I am employing.

Our son was born premature and the muscles he needed to suckle weren’t developed. He had a hard time eating. He was born at just over five pounds and stayed tiny for a long time. People constantly told my wife, “You need to feed that baby,” as if she hadn’t thought of that herself. There were two guys at church we called Biscuit and Gravy because each Sunday that is what they said we should be feeding our newborn. We understood our son’s condition. We were in communication with the doctor. We knew what we were doing. A woman at a store said to my wife, “You child looks sickly. You should feed him more.” At the end of her rope, my generally sweet wife replied, “I think he’s doing pretty well for a child born without an esophagus.”  It wasn’t the kindest thing my wife could have said, but it was doggone funny.

So, be it your child or an unsolicited councilor, stick to your guns. Momma knows best.

Start teaching your children from day one what is a need and what is a want. Then help them attach the proper value to things. In other words, don’t get too attached to balloons. Balloons were never meant to be keepsakes. We need to tell our kids what things they can expect to stay around forever, and what things are fleeting. This helps them develop realistic expectations.

 I knew a kid who knew what a dollar was, and what you could do with a dollar, but he had no concept of saving. He would do most anything to get a dollar. “Hey kid, I’ll give a dollar if you get me the remote.” Hey kid, “I’ll give you a buck if you go get me a glass of water.” This might seem an excessive and expensive way to get things done, but here’s the thing: you would give the kid a dollar and he would be joyous. For about sixty seconds. Then he would get diverted from the dollar and he would lay it down. At that point, you could pick the dollar up and give the same dollar back to the kid five minutes later for yet another task. You could pay that little guy the same dollar a hundred times a day. It was a neat little trick, until he finally developed the concept of saving. Then you couldn’t get him to do anything for a dollar.

Kids have short memories and they rebound quickly. A child throwing an “I must have it or I will die!” fit in the cereal aisle is generally happy as a lark by the time you get to the car.

Kids: If you really want something, think about it before you leave for the store. If you think you might want something, ask your folks if you can take five dollars out of your bank to take with you to the store. If you have your own money you have a better argument for getting what you want.

Adults: Ask yourself, “What is the value my kid is placing on this lost item?” Why is it important to her?” Also, remember that if you put a toy catalogue in front of a kid and say, “Go through there and circle the things you want for your birthday,” that kid is going to circle everything in the book and then wonder why, after you offered  the world, you are not providing it. It never hurts to limit the choices.

Finally, diffuse the situation. I try and turn things into games. One game I like is “How Many?” My kid will say, “Oh, Daddy, I want that doll baby.” And I’ll say, “How many do you want?” This throws the kid. They were waiting for a “Yes” or “No.” I just changed the equation. My kid will consider and say, “I want a hundred of those dolls.” I say, “And what would you do with all of them?”

By that time, we are past the dolls and having a conversation. Furthermore, you kid has your attention, which is most likely all they wanted in the first place.

Like the article? We bet you’ll love this book:

When I was asked to write this book it was not because I am an accredited child rearing expert. I have no degree, credentials or recognition as a child raising expert. I am a professional stor…

Muddling Through

Bil Lepp

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A storyteller, author, and recording artist, Lepp’s works have received awards and recognition from The Parents’ Choice Foundation, The National Parenting Publications Assoc., Storytelling World, and the Public Library Assoc. Lepp has been featured n… Read More


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