The Importance of Wanting: A Different Kind of Gift.

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 8.40.47 AM

By Dr. Allison Belger

The holiday season is filled with blessings—and challenges, sometimes testing our values and resolve as parents.  Kids tell us that they want X, Y, and Z, and nine times out of ten they get all three.  Too often “I want” equates to “I will, without much (if any) effort, get…”  Kids are told to make their lists, and then, as if by magic, their desired objects appear.

Between shopping trips and the frenzied chaos that is the holiday season, I found some time this week to reflect on the experience of wanting.  As a parent, I paused to see how I felt about delivering so many of the things my kids have mentioned wanting.  While on the one hand I would like them to feel loved and experience the joy of the holidays, on the other hand, I am uneasy about fulfilling every wish, with no output on their part.

I realize I’m not the first or only parent to visit this conundrum at holiday time.  For those of us comfortable enough to bestow gifts on our children, we may question the materialism and commercial pull, even while we are knee-deep in wrapping paper and home decorating.  This year, for me, it has boiled down to the simple equation of “I want” equaling “I will get.”

Wanting is an important experience.  Assuming a relatively stable upbringing where fundamental needs are met and love is abundant (even if occasionally steered off-course by human imperfection), it is critical for children to know what it feels like to want something.  The experience of wanting, without immediate gratification, can provide motivation to take action to earn what we seek.  For kids, this might be working for a good grade or a skill in sport or the arts, or whatever activity interests them.   It might mean doing chores or getting a paid job to earn a desired toy or clothing item or electronic gadget.

If we do not develop the capacity to tolerate wanting, we may ultimately become adults who are unable to recognize and/or tolerate our desires.   In the most extreme cases where wanting is excruciating, we may turn to drinking or drugs or develop eating disorders, in order to prevent ourselves from feeling our wants for too long; immediate, if misguided, gratification appeases the wanting and temporarily soothes the discomfort of desire.  In contrast, healthy tolerance of desire can lead to all sorts of good outcomes; wanting something can spur us to action and drive our intentions.

On a personal level, let’s say that you “want” to get better at a certain skill in the gym.  If you can tolerate that state of  desire, you will recognize that you need to put a plan in place to work towards your goal.  The wanting is an opportunity, and the getting there is the work to be done.  If you can’t tolerate the uncertainty of want—perhaps because of envy of those who are better than you, or for fear of failure, or because you are frustrated by an injury—then opportunity is lost and the want is either pushed aside or experienced as intrusive and unattainable. If you can’t allow yourself to want, it is difficult to set goals and succeed.

On a broader scale, perhaps for you it is wanting a bigger home for your family.  As with the gym skill, this desire can be an opportunity, a trigger for action to work towards a goal, to budget more carefully, to seek extra work or change jobs, to skip the Starbucks runs (gasp!), or to explore other options.

If WANT = GET for our children, there is no opportunity.  There is no middle ground, no potential space where work can be done and the goal can be earned instead of received automatically.  Think about this as you shower your loved ones with gifts you will love to give this season.  Think about the gift of teaching a child to lay out a plan for earning a coveted toy, or the gift of helping your partner set goals and create a map for achieving them.  It’s not about being a Scrooge, but rather about making use of opportunities for growth.

This may be the time to remind kids to help with household chores, to earn privileges and “stuff.”  This may be the time to remember those less fortunate, to volunteer at a soup kitchen, to donate to a favorite cause, to give something back.

Wanting and getting are fun—no doubt about it. But sometimes the most meaningful gifts are the ones with lessons that last a lifetime and make wanting an experience of possibility and opportunity.  WANT should equate to striving and doing.  The getting sometimes comes later.

Wishing you a safe and happy holiday!


  1. Does work = a higher sense of gratification once you’ve earned the thing you’ve wanted? This is something I think about a lot. I have a hard time truly appreciating what I’ve earned and that highly impacts the way I handle want in the first place. Thanks for providing some great food for thought. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: