The 5 Core Needs of Children

Kathy Koch
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As you read about your children’s five core needs, picture the needs stacked as a pyramid. How children attempt to meet one core need will affect the others. Security is the foundation and hopefully it’s solid. When children don’t know who they can trust, and you and others can’t trust them, everything else is negatively affected.

Because of the connections among the needs, it was challenging to assign character traits to only one of the needs, as I do below. For example, I could make a case for categorizing integrity and discernment in each need. Still, you’ll benefit from seeing what I prioritize for each. It will give you a starting place when you know which core need to shore up. All forty-eight qualities are assigned to at least one core need.

Security: Who Can I Trust?

Without a firm foundation of security in people, children won’t have sure footing. They won’t grow or achieve as much success because they can’t take appropriate risks. They also may be lonely because they don’t know who they can trust. These experiences and choices mean they’ll experience less, learn less, and even love less.

Children must know who they are. Without this clarity and confidence, they’ll be like grains of sifting sand and feathers in the wind.

If they don’t value being trustworthy themselves, they may lie and bully more. Because they’ll assume people are difficult, they may put their security in things like grades, looks, and popularity. They’ll want these things to be dependable, but this isn’t wise because they don’t last.[1]

Children need to learn who they can trust and how to behave so others can trust them. Therefore, prioritize discernment, forgiveness, honesty, faithfulness, integrity, self-control, consistency, gentleness, kindness, and responsibility.

Think about the current state of your children’s security. What qualities might you want to emphasize now?

Identity: Who Am I?

Children must know who they are. Without this clarity and confidence, they’ll be like grains of sifting sand and feathers in the wind. Or worse, they may intentionally change to fit in with this or that group. They might pretend not to care about God, and to like a game, movie, or someone’s decision about their gender in order to fit in.

Being content in a complete and positive identity and having solid security makes negative identity changes like these less likely. Knowing they can trust themselves and others empowers them to change only for the right reasons. With firm security and healthy identity, rather than compromising truth and values, they’ll rest in who they are, find others who like them for who they are, and willingly influence culture.

When character marks children, they’ll know who they are and how to behave. This is powerful! You can look at the list of qualities to see which may be relevant to children’s identity.

If they’re not self-aware and have blind spots about who they are, they can be confused, hopeless, or become angry when you try to point things out. In this case, teach about humility, self-respect, and discernment pointed inward to how they feel and outward to how others relate to them. In general, effort and bravery will help them become who they need to be, and generosity, gratitude, sincerity, and unselfishness will serve them well. I would also stress resiliency and remorse, both of which I could have listed as security traits.

Think about the current state of your children’s identity. What qualities might you want to emphasize now?

Belonging: Who Wants Me?

Being trustworthy, knowing who they can trust, and knowing who they are form the foundation of a healthy belonging. This is another legitimate need. Without strong connections to family, healthy peers, and adults, children may be lonely and stressed, confused by people, and angry when left out. You’ve probably seen this play out at times.

Resiliency and discernment are essential qualities for belonging.

Of course, there’s no guarantee. The son of friends has healthy security, knows who he is, and has many friends from school and church. Yet, he didn’t have friends available to have fun with on the most recent New Year’s Eve. Fortunately, Nicole and Eric are aware and involved parents so they can meet part of his need for security and belonging. Because of their relationship, he could admit he was upset and willingly went to dinner and a movie with his mom. Since they often connect through regular dinner and movie “dates,” it was easy for her to invite him and not hard for him to say yes. When children meet their needs partly through you, they’ll be healthier and more resilient when their first choices don’t work out. And, at times, you’ll be their first choice!

Resiliency and discernment are essential qualities for belonging. They’re genuinely relevant for all five needs. Therefore, I’ll elaborate on them even though I have not elaborated much about other qualities I’ve included. My details may equip you to think well about other qualities.

Discernment helps children know the difference between peers who have a bad day and those who consistently behave in an immature and unhealthy way. For example, is Lisa usually kind, cooperative, and gentle, but on one particular day she wasn’t? That’s different from people who are consistently manipulative and mean. Children need to discern the difference so they know when to maintain a relationship and when to walk away. Discernment allows children to know if they should give someone a second chance. Resiliency is what will enable them to do it.

Discernment is also essential for self-examination. When children struggle with issues related to belonging, they can look back and ask themselves how healthy their security and identity are. You can help them with this analysis. For example, if they’re insecure, it’s easier to follow the crowd in doing wrong. If their identity is “I must be the best,” they’ll be prideful and likely relate through competition instead of in healthy ways. They’ll be critical of others and impatient and angry with themselves when they’re not the best.

What other character traits do you think of for belonging? What strengthens your relationships? Your list might include being agreeable, diligent, loving, forgiving, caring, patient, respectful, fair, peaceful, hospitable, cooperative, and joyful.

Think about the current state of your children’s belonging. What qualities might you want to emphasize now?

Purpose: Why Am I Alive?

When children don’t trust themselves (security), don’t have a positive view of who they are (identity), and aren’t in life-giving relationships (belonging), they may doubt they have purpose. They won’t believe in their todays or tomorrows. They may not persevere to overcome challenges but instead become apathetic and pessimistic. They may never become who God created them to be and that would be disappointing. Tragic, even. Parent differently so this doesn’t describe your children!

Children are created on purpose, with purpose, and for a purpose. Therefore, God sets children in relationships where they can serve Him, make Him known, and influence culture. He also gives them the identity He wants them to have. This includes gifts God chose for them, as declared in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Because God wants children to fulfill their purpose, He wants children to trust Him, other people, and themselves. If they don’t, it’s harder to take risks, which is almost always necessary to step out in faith to try new things God has called us to do.

I could have written about the big three—joy, gratitude, and self-efficacy—when addressing any of these core needs. Children who use them are more trustworthy and have a more positive identity and healthier relationships. These children are also more able to fulfill their purpose.

Joy and gratitude lead to peace and contentment, which positively affect purpose. These children won’t struggle as much with depression or anxiety. These feelings may come and go, but they won’t overwhelm or define the children. Therefore, they can believe they have purpose and will be able to focus on it.

Think about the current state of your children’s purpose. What qualities might you want to emphasize now?

Gratitude and joy also make other-centeredness more likely. When this is coupled with self-efficacy (the ability to accomplish their goals), these children will be unstoppable. Knowing they can be effective helps them look for purpose. Expecting to be effective is a huge blessing! Now they just won’t be frustrated or angry about the chaotic culture but will want to improve it. They want to because they believe they can. If they couldn’t, they’d choose not to be motivated—wanting to change something without real hope that they can is discouraging and demotivating.

Because lack of purpose can cause apathy, despair, isolation, and suicidal thoughts, you’ll want to emphasize character qualities such as hope, confidence, and optimism. Others with value include initiative, compassion, other-centeredness, helpfulness, determination, flexibility, submission, and self-efficacy.

Think about the current state of your children’s purpose. What qualities might you want to emphasize now?

Competence: What Do I Do Well?

When I speak to parents about these five core needs, I realize that many have made competence the foundational first need. They flip the pyramid. I get it. The culture and many organizations celebrate what we do well exclusively. Maybe your parents did that and only paid attention to you when you did things well or perfectly. They may have given you the impression that your performances mattered more than you did. It affected you then and this may affect your parenting now.

If you prioritize your children’s competence, you’re not alone. But think about it. Without them meeting the first four needs in healthy ways, competence isn’t necessary. Maybe you would have said, “Competence isn’t possible.” That’s true too. But, more significantly, if your children don’t have healthy security, identity, belonging, and purpose, they don’t need competence. They don’t need to be good at anything without people to serve and purposes to fulfill. And they won’t believe they can be good at anything if their identity is rooted in negative qualities and they don’t trust themselves.

By parenting differently, you establish the power and health of the first four needs, and your children can develop the competence they need. Like in so much of life, paying attention to the foundation of anything improves everything.

Purpose drives competence. We share some purposes while some are unique. No matter the purpose, character in general will always be everyone’s most crucial competence. Our character equips us to be and do so much! We all need competence for at least obedience, love, and learning. Sharing the gospel and discipleship also come to mind. Your daughter may have a unique purpose to earn a part in a theater production. Your son may want to learn to detail cars. They’ll work on competence you and I don’t need.

Many of the traits I’ve highlighted in the other needs are relevant for competence. I’ll add these: humility, teachability, decisiveness, carefulness, perseverance, resourcefulness, and initiative. Think about the current state of your children’s competence. What qualities might you want to emphasize now?

[1] Lee Nienhuis, Counter Cultural Parenting: Building Character in a World of Compromise (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), 27–28.

For Further Reading:

Parent Differently

by Kathy Koch

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