When Meeting Kids’ Needs Is No Longer Fun

“You have never had to do anything this hard in your life,” our teen son said to us after being given the job of raking and moving an enormous pile of leaves to the front yard.  We burst into laughter.  He felt so persecuted, when in reality he could move those leaves a thousand times, and it wouldn’t come close to the amount of time, energy, agony, stress, effort, and money that we have put into raising him.  Kids are naturally self-centered.  Even the most responsible, hard- working, compassionate kids are naturally self-serving.

Children have a hard time seeing adults as having needs, much less seeing those adult needs as being above their own needs in that moment.  “That is not fair,” they say when parents have to work instead of taking them to the movies.

I was trying to determine when I became less self-serving, and I would have to say it was after adopting my children.  At the time, I thought I was a very thoughtful adult; now I look back and see how selfish I was.  Honestly, at the beginning I met their needs to keep them alive and to keep me from losing my mind with their crying.  I can actually remember having meltdowns that first year, realizing that I always had to take care of them.  I had to feed them twelve times a day even if I was throwing up, had three doctors’ appointments, had no food in the fridge, and had a migraine.  Their needs never ended and weren’t based on my needs at all.  They were just so incredibly immature about it all. Didn’t they understand at four months and fifteen months that I had important needs also?   At least my spouse understood the limits of my human capacities on a bad day, but not the kids.  They kept asking to be fed and comforted all day long, no matter what was going on.  They also never got on the same sleep schedule so someone was always awake!

The kids just kept demanding, asking, and needing, year after year, year after year.  Somewhere along the way, I became the “need meeter”.  Somewhere along the way, I developed an enormous satisfaction in meeting their needs.  Kids train you well like this.  You give them your full, undivided attention, and they give you a dimpled smile.  You give them every ounce of your energy, and they choose you above everyone else.  They wrap their little arms around you, and all is right in the world.   I would drive for an hour to a kids’ museum and spend the day watching them play and laugh, enjoying every minute of their delight. I would sit and rock a sick child for hours or all night to comfort him/her if needed, and the satisfaction I received from soothing my uncomfortable child is incomparable to just about anything I can imagine experiencing.  And the discomfort I felt at my chid’s discomfort was to be avoided at all cost.  It was torment for me to see my child in distress.

Something shifted in the pre-teens.  I was still the “need meeter”, but only on their terms.  Sometimes they needed me desperately and for hours, and other times they didn’t need me at all.  Meeting needs became less satisfying and more sacrificing.  Making them their favorite snack when they grumbled and rolled their eyes at me just didn’t do it for me anymore.  Teenagers prepare you for the world of separation from your child.  I couldn’t have imagined when they were one-year old leaving them with anyone unfamiliar even for a minute.  Now I imagine and look forward to a day they will be independent, having their own adventures.  There are so many things I love about having teens, but doing things for them has lost its luster.

I just announced to them they would each be shopping for and cooking one meal per week.  My child who is a planner is making hot dogs.  My impulsive child who should be making the hot dogs is apparently making pork roast with sides.  If you knew my children, you would be looking forward to the hot dogs and dreading the pork roast at this point.  I am finding a new enjoyment now.  I am enjoying watching my children become independent.  They are really as cute as when they were toddlers navigating this big adult world for the first time.  I have started giving them their own forms to fill out at the doctor’s office, and my son misread “marital” and asked me what his martial status was.  He said, “That is asking about the military, right?”   I laughed hard and loud with him because he can laugh well at his own expense.  He also asked me if PMS stood for psychic metal skills.   Apparently for a couple of years now when I say, “I am PMSing,” that has been quite confusing to him because as far as he knows, he has never seen me move metal with my mind.

The shift between enjoying meeting needs and not enjoying it anymore has been gradual and a necessary part of them feeling more independent.  When this shift doesn’t happen, parents end up resentful, and children lack the skills for independence.  I have worked with parents of adult children who still wake up their children in the morning, remind them of doctor’s appointments, and do their laundry.  When the shift from need meeting to supporting independence doesn’t happen, it leads to very unhappy parents and entitled, angry, and insecure kids.  In talking to adult children in these situations, it becomes clear that they feel incompetent.

Tweens and teens want to be competent.  They want to start doing things alone.  Don’t miss the window of time when they begin to flirt with independence.  If you do, they will decide independence isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and it is awful nice to let mom and dad still do everything for you.  Here is a list of suggestions for kids that age:

Let Them Fill Out Their Own Forms

  • Let them fill out their own forms at the doctor’s office and write their own checks for school activities. In writing out their own checks, they, of course, would need to balance the checkbook. They will need your help for a while, but not forever.

Let Them Fail

  • Tweens in the kitchen is a lot like having toddlers in the kitchen. They create a huge disaster and often make things that are inedible.  Still, let them explore.  Give them the job of cooking one night a week which would include making a grocery list of supplies.  Don’t do the thinking for them. If you know something is missing from the list, don’t rescue.  Kids learn better from natural consequences than from conversations.  They may forget to add the hot dog buns once, but they won’t forget twice.  In case you are wondering how the pot roast turned out, my son burned a $14 roast to the consistency of a brick.  The next time he planned a meal, it was a manageable meal for him (frozen pizza with our favorite toppings added, a garden salad, and strawberry smoothies) and turned out perfect.

Don’t Let the Eye Rolls and Whining Discourage You

  • Kids this age are just amazing at staying in this seemingly constant state of complaining about everything they have to do. Most people don’t like to fold laundry or clean a bathtub, but that is just part of real life.  Parents often avoid the discomfort of the battle and do things themselves.

Concrete Learning

  • Encourage your kids to make their own money. Kids this age often have business ideas. Let them run with these ideas.  My daughter who is thirteen has a pet-sitting business.  We encouraged this business with a few rules of our own.  She has to create her own schedule, clean before the initial pet visit, and clean up after the pets leave.  Just last night she went to meet a neighbor to discuss a potential job coming up.  I don’t make those arrangements for her.  It is her business. She has developed so many skills around this business of hers and makes a good bit of money that she promptly deposits in the bank.   Kids this age can’t see what they don’t have to do.  If you are calling everyone, writing everyone thank you notes, etc., they will not consider those things as a necessary part of having a business.

Free Time is Very important

  • Some kids don’t have any responsibilities at home because they go straight from school to soccer, and from soccer to piano. By the time they get home, they are rushing through homework to get to bed at a decent hour.  Activities are great, but they often come at the cost of children not learning to be competent individuals.  They don’t have time to load a dishwasher, do their own laundry, or prep a grocery list.
  • Creativity is born out of boredom. Creativity, like every other child venture, is messy.  Deal with it.  Let your child take apart the toaster or dig through the trash for craft supplies.  Let him spend an hour inventing cookies you know aren’t going to turn out because no one added eggs.  Let them take the hammer and nails and make themselves a fort or shelves for their room (that will promptly topple over). Let them write a play script, write a letter, get into the sewing supplies, and many other things that are so much more wholesome than screen time.

Most children decide between the ages of 11-13 what they are good at and want to invest their time in.  More often than not, this becomes the career that they will also pursue as adults. Think back to yourself at that age.  If you are an engineer today, you were probably driving your mother crazy taking things apart.  If you are a nurse today, you can look back and see that you have always been a caretaker. This age is full of promise, potential, and fun.  So stop meeting every need and start supporting their need for independence.