Kids have a need to feel important — here's how to meet it

This is part five of a seven-part series on the SPECIAL emotional needs of children. The S is for Smile. The P is for Powerful. The E is for Explore. The C is for Connection. Today, we tackle I — Important.

Your kids won't want to "match" you forever.

One of my favorite stories to tell turned 15 this year.

It was 2005, and I was having breakfast with my husband and our then-infant daughter, Maxine, who coincidentally turned 15 this week. (Happy Birthday, Maxine!) We were at a cafe here in Long Beach. Hey, that reminds me. Remember when we used to go out for breakfast? And we used to sit inside? Where other people were also having breakfast? Man. Nostalgia is real.

So anyhow, we were sitting in this cafe, and at the booth over were a couple in their early-30s, each with multiple tattoos and piercings and jet-black hair to match their clothes. This was not a particularly unique look in my city, so I wouldn't have paid much attention to the couple except for the company they kept. Sitting across from them was their daughter, who looked about six and was dressed head-to-toe in pink. In addition to a pretty pink dress and shoes, she wore a shimmering headband, which held back a long mane of perfectly combed, blond hair.

As the family stood up to leave, it was impossible not to notice or smile. These two Morrissey types had given birth to a Barbie doll. The mother caught my eye and smiled back.

“All she wears is pink” she told me. “I buy her all these black T-shirts, but she won’t touch any of them.”

As they left, I remember thinking, "I love that little family."

Now this was long before I knew anything about the emotional needs of children. My husband and I were still firmly entrenched in the eat-sleep-comfort phase of child development.

But now, all these years later, I know that what they were doing was meeting one of their daughter's emotional needs: The need for children to feel Important.

Kids, like the rest of us, need to feel they have a place here on the planet and believe they have something to offer the world. That means believing that they make good decisions for themselves, that they don't need their parents directing their every move.

Of course, we all know intellectually that our kids are individual humans, brought into the world with their own desires, opinions, temperaments and impulses. But, especially in those early years when we are dressing them up and splashing their adorableness all over our refrigerators, it can be easy to forget that they don't represent us. They represent themselves, and very soon — much sooner than you'd think! — they will break out from under our refrigerator magnets and define their own beings.

They will start wanting to choose their own:

  • Activities

  • Clothes

  • Sports or extracurriculars (only to quit those and try a whole new set of things!)

  • Friends

  • Meals

  • Outings

  • Music

  • College

  • Major

  • Job

  • Spiritual beliefs

And when we see that happening, it's our job to take a gigantic step back from our own wants and inclinations and focus on encouraging our kids' sprouting individuality.

The irony is that the more you let your kids "go" emotionally, the more they want to stay close to you physically. Because you will become one of the people in their lives who makes them feel — yep — important. They know they can get this particular need met through you.

The irony is that the more you let your kids 'go' emotionally, the more they want to stay close to you physically.

Now, do we have to enthusiastically rubber stamp every favorite song they have? Heck to the no. But encouragement isn't praise. We need not agree with our children's desires to support them.

Instead of — "You have great taste in music," or "I love it when you ask to go to the pumpkin patch 42 times a day,"or "You're right! Pink is the best of all the colors!" Switch it to — "Cardi B always makes you want to dance," or "The pumpkin patch seems to be your new favorite place," or "You love pink!"

That's Maxine touring a factory — a dream come true.

Here are a some other ways to make your child feel important:

  1. Allow your child his perceptions, even if they change all the time. If he wants to try out vegetarianism, or dabble in a political affiliation that is unlike your own, be open to that. Show an interest and ask questions without minimizing it. Trust that he is trying to live his most authentic life here.

  2. Make it a Kid’s Choice Night. Take turns letting your kids pick the evening game or activity. Let them choose what to eat for dinner— and let them help cook it.

  3. Go where they want to go. This is an extreme example, and obvious pre-COVID, but when Maxine was nine, she really wanted to visit a factory. No local factories were open to visitors, one of the closest we could find was the Jelly Belly Candy Company — outside San Francisco. Although I wondered if a factory tour was really worth an eight-hour drive, my husband convinced me to make it our next vacation destination. We had the best time, and Maxine enjoyed the living F out of that tour.

It isn't always easy when kids move “away” from things are genuinely important to us. It can hurt a bit when they reject our opinions and insist on doing things their own way. And, of course, we won't be able to encourage their desires 100% of the time. So my advice is this: Along your child's journey to adulthood, be sure to identify as many spots as possible where you can encourage your kids to be their own people.

You can always start by letting them wear pink.

Read the next in the series here.