The Law of Toddler Want and Need: A Not-So-Scientific Breakdown

This may stun some of you, but sometimes kids throw tantrums. Even the calmest and sweetest of kids are going to have fantastic meltdowns. They will yell, cry, kick, scream, and otherwise let the world know of their dissatisfaction with current parenting procedure or world events. Obviously, these meltdowns only happen over the most important offenses like the wrong color spoon, or you as a terrible parent being unable to produce warm ice cubes.

The reason these meltdowns are so over the top, and relatively frequent is because of how toddler’s view the things they want or need in this world. With this in mind, I would like to present my not-so-scientific theory I have creatively titled David’s Law of Toddler Wants and Needs. Now keep in mind that I have basically no education in child development, psychology, or anything else particularly useful (seriously, I studied English, Philosophy, and Music… it’s like the holy trinity of unemployment). In short, I’m sure this has been written about by far more qualified people with real credentials. I would even bet they used crazy things like “research”, and somewhere in their writing the word “hypothesis” even shows up. That being said… I don’t care, I’m doing it anyway.

David’s Law of Toddler Wants and Needs

David’s Law of Toddler Wants and Needs is really quite simple. The theory has three closely related main rules, and it puts into perspective why toddler wants and needs are so extreme, and why meltdowns so frequently occur. So let’s look at the these rules…

Rule #1 – There Is No Want, There Is Only Need

This is a pretty simple distinction, but it is the cause of so much trouble. Your toddler does not separate want from need. As rational adults we understand that your toddler only wants a cookie. If he/she does not have that cookie (or if said cookie looks like Big Bird and not Elmo), nothing bad will happen. However, from the toddler’s perspective that cookie is the be all and end all of everything right now. This is why not getting the cookie is such a massive meltdown. In the screaming, snot covered kiddo’s head this cookie was not something they wanted, it was something they absolutely had to have for survival.

Rule #2 – All Needs Are Equally Important

Toddler’s don’t have a range of need. It’s a flat line, and that line is always at “100% must have or the world will end”. This is very different than how adults view needs. As adults we understand a range of necessity. Some needs are immediate, such as going to the hospital due to major injury (which probably occurred because your kid decided they needed to carefully organize their marble collection at the top of the stairs), and some needs are more passive. These passive needs may include repairing the wall a child was using for “hammering practice”, or going grocery shopping for the 17th time this week because somehow after 16 shops, there is still absolutely nothing to eat in the house.

Your child does not make any of these distinctions. Your child needs everything at the same level of “I NEED THAT MORE THAN I HAVE EVER NEEDED ANYTHING EVER!” Now consider this rule along with rule #1, and we can quickly see why the frequency of toddler tantrums is so high. If everything is a need, and every need is completely equal, then if even one of those “needs” is not fulfilled we can easily dip into meltdown territory. Just remember, when your toddler is losing their mind over you blowing a bubble out of the wrong end of the wand, they needed you to use the other end of the wand as much as they need a roof over their head.

Rule #3 – The Most Recent Need Trumps All Other Needs

I know what some of you may be thinking. If all needs are equally important, then shouldn’t a parent be able to replace one need with another? Although it is worth a shot to suggest other things instead of the current life or death need, the conversion rate of redirecting a hyper-focused toddler is somewhere around the Mendoza Line (that’s a pretty obscure reference for die hard baseball fans… you can read about it here), and there is a reason for this. Toddler’s live in the moment on a level that is really a sight to behold. There is no past, there is no future, there is only the now.

Within that now, there is a need. That need could be anything from the need to paint a picture even though you are currently on the highway to the need to clean your phone in the bathtub. So even though all needs are created equal, the current need has a big shiny star next to it on the list of “Things That Are Totally Worth Melting Down Over” in their head. Once it passes, it will revert back to being as equally important as all other needs. That is until the next time your child remembers the joy of pouring water all over your expensive electronic equipment… and then that need will come roaring back.

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