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What do kids really need?

There are very few things in life children need. I was reminded of this today when I met Denise. I’m in the Philippines, and Denise is six. The same age as Tate, my daughter.

I’m here with Compassion International, privileged more than words can say to witness, first hand, the work of their hands. I spent the morning learning about how they work, where their money goes, and the needs they seek to meet.

Then in the afternoon, I met Denise and her mom, and together we played, prayed, and talked. And as I rode the bus back to our hotel, reflecting on my whirlwind day, I was struck not by how different Denise is because she lives in poverty, but how similar she is to Tate because she — well, she’s a child.

Right now, I’m mindful of how little all children really need.

1. Physical needs

Food, water, shelter, air. These things contribute to our health, which in turn contributes to our overall vitality. Seems like no big deal, doesn’t it? A few meals a day, water (one of the most abundant substances on Earth), a clean place to sleep, and fresh air to inhale. Most of us hardly even think of getting these needs met for our children, because it just… happens.

For others, it’s not so easy. Food costs money, water gets dirty because of inadequate infrastructure, a sanitary home isn’t as easy when the world around you is unsanitary, and air gets dirty, too.

These basic needs are what my three children need to grow healthy and strong. These are the same needs for Denise and her two siblings. And the other billions of kids on the earth.

2. Play

Lots and lots of play. And not just any sort of play, but quality, liberated, stimulating, healthy play. Time outside to explore and wander. Manipulatives for experimenting and observing. Physical movement.

Today, Denise went to the zoo, and it’ll probably be an experience she remembers the rest of her life. She saw a white tiger, touched an enormous yellow snake, and laughed at an orangutan dressed in clothing. Denise’s family can’t normally afford to go here, so the one hour we spent there is hers for the memory making.

But you know where she spent most of her time?


Photo by Shaun

She was mesmerized by the sand box. Denise ran up to clamor a spot on the side, grabbed a bucket and makeshift shovel, and spent the majority of her time entranced and delighted. Watching her reminded me of watching Tate and Reed at the playground, happy to stuff their fingers into the sand and feel the texture, shake and shift the grains, and build a little world where they are kings and queens.

No gizmos. No lights and sounds and buttons. Just simple playthings, dripping with possibilities.

3. Love

To go to bed knowing you are loved, and to wake up secure in your environment — is there much else sweeter in life? Children must be aware of their love and their value in order to thrive. We’ve all heard those statistics of how babies in overcrowded orphanages are physically smaller, not because they’re not fed, but because there aren’t enough available hands to hold them. Love is the impetus for hope and security, and these are the catalysts for thriving.

Denise’s mother loves her, and watching them hold hands made my heart ache for my own children, 8,000 miles away. A mother’s love for her child… So utterly universal is this pang.

Analyn loves her three children just as I love my three children. Our six kids combined, living half a world away from each other, share the same basic needs. These needs are mostly met, but a few aren’t as readily available for half of them. I am humbled, sobered, and floored that my measly $38 a month helps Analyn be a better mom to Denise.

These two six-year-old girls:

Photo by Keely

They’re really not that different.

What basic needs of children would you add to the list?

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. C L

    The absence of certain kinds of mental stress and trauma.

    • Elle

      Yep, so true! Whether it’s the trauma of war, disease, abuse, or domestic problems…this stuff is extremely hard on kiddos.

      • Iva @ This Side of Perfect

        Agreed. Children can survive poverty, strife, and abuse – but why should they have to?

  2. Renee

    Wow! What an amazing experience you must be having! Your post really helps me stop and think about what is really important. Very timely as summer is starting and I am able to have these months with my children.

  3. Ashley

    Beautiful post! And very true.

  4. Ryan (The Woven Moments)

    I lived overseas for a time as a teenager. Seeing how other teenagers lived in Asia changed my whole world view. Such a blessing.

    Enjoy the Philippines! Such a fabulous country….


  5. Sherley

    Great post!

  6. Jennie

    Wow. Just wow. Thank you so much for this perspective. I think that generally, in this country, we think that because we can give children everything material that they should be happy, but we forget that that doesn’t replace what they actually need. A new toy or a large house doesn’t replace an absent or distracted parent. The things we think they “need” tend to choke out like a weed the things they really crave.

  7. Cathy Davis

    I have a child (Compassion child) from the Philippines. Thank you for the update!

  8. Stacy

    So true. It’s humbling to think that my little family could easily be in need of clean water and food if our circumstances were just a little different. Such a great reminder to be thankful for our blessings and to take note of what our children really need.

  9. Sharon @ Hiking Toward Home

    Oh how my heart is aching and my eyes are watering. Reading your words and viewing the photos of this little Filipino, breaks my heart afresh for the ministry we planted there and the children left behind. Praying for you all on your trip as you represent Compassion there in the Philippines.

  10. oh amanda {impress your kids}

    Thank you for going w/Compassion. I love seeing what they are doing around the world. Praying heartily for you all this week!

  11. Amanda Jones

    Thanks for sharing this journey with us. I’m praying for you guys!

  12. Jill Foley

    So glad you are on this trip – praying for you all.

  13. Gayle

    Children need to know they are safe, not only physically safe, but that they have a safe place to talk about anything and everything!
    We sponsor a Compassion child from Bolivia. I hope to meet her one day 🙂

  14. Susana of Montessori Candy

    Thank you Tsh 🙂 This is a wonderful reminder. It also encourages me to simplify even further so that we may live out God’s purpose for our life to the fullest.

  15. We are THAT family

    So true! Thanks for this beautiful post, Tsh. So excited to be following your journey this week

  16. Ann Voskamp@Holy Experience

    No — those two beautiful girls…. not that different at all. How can we make dreams come true for both?

    We really could.

    Thanks, Tsh…

    Praying for you, friend!

    All’s grace,

  17. Teena

    Beautiful. Awesome. Reading and praying…

    So excited for you!

  18. Joelle

    Such a beautiul piece. Great job capturing the sweet small details for those of us following along. Keep up the great work!!!!! Praying over this team from Florida.

  19. Dedra

    beautiful post … praying for you all and praying that many more children will be sponsored through the sharing of your journey!

  20. sap

    good tips for the fresh parents and for all parents actually 🙂

  21. Gretchen

    Attention, the undivided focused kind…Thanks for the post. What beautiful little girls, so full of possibilities!

  22. Amanda

    So beautiful! Thank you

  23. Nicole @ Burning Bushes

    God has made us all from one man, right? And given us all boundaries and spaces to live in. And kids are always kids.

    I think kids need TIME-time with parents or older guardians, time outside, time to relax and do nothing, time to be kids!

    Thanks for bringing us with you.

  24. Melissa

    Thanks for this post. It is so easy for me to get caught up in all the things I think my kids “need” when really those aren’t essentials at all. And they usually aren’t even things they ask for – just things I see other people able to do for their children that we don’t have the resources to do for ours. You can never be reminded too often that to be a good parent you need to love, encourage, and play with your children. No amount of stuff will ever replace those basic needs. (And I always take the physical basic needs for granted, which I shouldn’t do either.)

  25. Kelli

    Such simple, true words. Thanks for for sacrificing your time with your own precious daughter so the rest of us could be encouraged.

  26. teres

    in a world where it seems that so many families are competing with one another for their children to be involved in every single program they can enroll them in or every single playgroup they discover or have every single new fandangled toy there is; i needed to hear this today. and it only helps me really be EXTRA confident in being one of those stay at home moms who feels and really believes that she doesn’t have to try to keep up (i really don’t feel that this is ‘keeping up’ but you know what i mean) by getting my son involved in so much that other kids are involved in and that play, love, health and security are all they really need to thrive. there is a point where it’s ridiculous and just TOO MUCH.

    as a child growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, we played. we just played. we weren’t carted around to this class and that class nor did we have an overabundance of toys. we played. WE JUST PLAYED. and we played with simple things – the sandbox, a jump rope, the wading pool, a frisbee, a ball or two, the tire swing, the slide – and we had a blast. and we were read to and with. we were loved. we felt secure and safe with our parents because they were always there. and we weren’t allowed much else but healthy things in our house as kids. i truly believe that’s all it takes.


    thanks for this today…i can’t say i was ever doubting my decisions in this regard but it sure helps to hear you aren’t the only one on the planet that thinks this way.

    • Nina

      I really like that children need your presence more than presents.

      however, I do disagree, while I may have had a mother around since she was mentally ill and severely abusive, that did not make for a good childhood. in addition to being there we need to be emotionally healthy for our children and provide a safe, secure environment for them to thrive.

      • teres

        having abuse in your childhood is a whole other ballgame and a whole other issue. me saying that we felt secure and safe with our parents nodded to the fact that emotional stability is obviously key.

  27. Roberta

    As a child (and as an adult) I have been very blessed with living in many different countries and I wish we could give this gift to all of our children. Growing up in countries like Ethiopia, Taiwan, Panama and even Italy, has made me so appreciative of what we have here in the US. We all take it for granted and until you have actually lived and witnessed another country and culture you just don’t realize how much we have to be grateful for.

  28. Laurie

    As a teacher in the public school sytem, I whole heartedly agree with the play aspect. And no, you can’t count on your public shcool to provide this. As more amd more testing is mandated, playtime is given up. My girls are 14 and 11. They have played outside in the dirt, heat, snow, whatever. They still prefer to play outside. They do not have a trampoline or a swimming pool. They ride bikes and read to their imaginary friends. My friends laugh because I am the only mother they know who has to go OUTSIDE every morning before school and call the girls in when it’s time to go to school.

  29. Heart and Haven

    I love this post, I love the insight, thank you!

  30. Cara

    I would add time. My ten month old reminds me of this every day. She needs to go to bed a little late because she needed an extra twenty minutes in the bath to explore what happens when she pushes a bottle under the water. She needs hours in the yard so she can check out every leaf. She needs me to wait another thirty seconds before I turn the page to give her time to see everything in the picture. She needs me to keep the rhythm of our life slow enough that she has time.

    • molly

      Yes. Yes. Yes. And these are the things we need, too.

      • Meredith

        Well said! It made me think that I’m probably guilty of rushing through a story… thanks for reminding me to slow down!

        • Paula

          So true! I’ve actually heard a statistic that parents spend an average of 10 minutes a day interacting with their children. It may have even been a week – it just seemed so shocking to me. Even though I have my own hypnotherapy practice, and my focus isn’t always on my 16 month old child, I can’t imagine not spending hours and hours interacting with him. We are their compass and reflection of who they are, especially when they’re so young. Their identity, in the beginning, is with their caregivers.

  31. Jessica

    Your post touches a special place in the heart of a teacher. My state tests are finished, and I get to focus the last few weeks of school on things that REALLY matter to my fifth graders. You have helped remind me of what’s truly important for these kids.

  32. Haley

    Beautiful post.Thanks for your sharing.I think I should take care of my child needs more so that he can improve hí himself both motal and physical

  33. cheryl

    Beautiful! Precious post.

  34. Country Girl in the City

    I heard a great tip today. Every night when a child goes to bed, tell them of one reason why you love them. Depending on the age of the child, it may be as simple as “I love you because you emptied the dishwasher when I asked you to.” The child will come to expect it every day and it reaffirms for him that he is loved.

    • Nina

      that is a great tip to tell your child you love them everyday but wow, the way this comes across seems detrimental. how about loving a child unconditionally? this seems as if they have to earn your love by doing chores? and are only loved when they’ve done something or listened immediately? what, then, do you do to earn their love? I hope you don’t say by bringing them to this earth or providing a home and food, but sadly, that is what many parents think. what if they don’t do something the first time you ask, are they then unlovable?

      I tell my son I love him. simply because he exists.
      I also tell him he is smart and funny and kind and caring etc…I don’t tie it to any behaviors. just that he is. if he asks for an example I will give that to him but don’t tie it to my compliment.

      • Country Girl in the City

        Ummmmmm, no. My children do not have to earn my love, it was just an example that I gave, not expecting that someone would interpret it in a different way than what I had intended.

        • Nina

          I didn’t interpret. I replied to your actual words. If they are not what you intended I apologize for reading them as that and offending you.

  35. Susan Buan

    Hi, Tsh! I’m one of the Compassion staff you met and had lunch with yesterday. Having read your beautiful post just affirmed our ministry with children. What a privilege we have to be able to somehow bridge the gap between their needs and the resources you, as sponsors and donors, offer them. I am simply touched with your love and concern for Denise. I count it a blessing to personally witness your tearful meeting with her. I couldn’t help but utter a word of thanks to our heavenly Father.
    May you continue to be blessed and be a blessing!

  36. Mandy

    So awesome that you are visiting with your sponsored child! Thanks for the great post! These do seem to me to be three basic things kids really need.

    A few months ago, I wrote a “Kids Need” series of posts on my little parenting blog. I tried to write about “needs” that I believe our culture encourages parents to overlook. Play is one. Others include: Rest, Work, Limits, Consequences, Truth, Routine, Friends… I think it’s important for us parents to really consider what our kids actually need rather than thoughtlessly going with the flow of our culture or being ruled by our own desires.

  37. Lisa

    Great perspective. Thanks for sharing! I look forward to reading more!

  38. Sarah

    Thank you for your post!
    Children need to know that they matter to someone. That is why Compassion is so effective. The most important part of sponsorship is letter writing. That creates the bond between the child and sponsor so that the child learns they are loved not only by their family (hopefully), but also by someone across the world. They are special because God made them, not because of anything they can do. Learning that they are important to someone makes them more able to strive for good things in their life.

    • Tsh

      Yes! I learned how important letter writing is today. I’ll share more details soon.

  39. Sarah

    Great post, Tsh. We’ve certainly lost sight of many of the basics in the whirlwind of things we think we “need” and can get here.
    One more thing kids need – responsibility.
    I’ve lived in different countries and my husband grew up poor in the Caribbean. Now we live together on a farm where our kids work hard to help us feed ourselves. I will tell you that many of the days our kids are happiest when they have worked hard and helped us during the day.

    I don’t want to diminish the incredibly hard world that so many kids live in and how much they have to work. But I’ve noticed that many children who grow up working to help their family and have responsibilities to help take care of the home and family, who also feel they are loved by their parents, have an enormous sense of self-worth and pride that many children in the U.S. are missing.

  40. Kamela @ Modern Girl Style

    Sweet post today! Thanks for reminding me that children love all the small pleasures that life has to offer. A good reminder to me as well!

  41. The New Me

    They need grace…and forgiveness…

    And they need to know that both are freely offered to them through Jesus, who died for them so they could know him eternally.

  42. Nina

    hmm, interesting list. and good thoughts but not so definitive. many people can love inappropriately. perhaps because I have spent years working with abused children and having been abused, I think love just ain’t enough! There needs to be a strong, sure foundation, a safe haven to make connections and be attached to emotionally healthy caregivers. I found this list that might be helpful – – what i Really like about it is it doesn’t just say “a child/person needs X it also says they need to be able to do it – so understand and be understood, know and be known, see and be seen…

    far too many people become parents because they think “I can love” when in reality they just want to be loved and really, cannot love and, often, can’t provide any of the other needs that we all should have met.

  43. Jui

    Beautiful. I’m going to keep these thoughts with me as I go along my day today, and remind myself to stop sweating the small stuff with my 1-year-old son, and just let him be a child.

  44. Christina Y.

    Right before I read your post, I was online shopping for a shower curtain… not that we need one; I just wanted a new one. The price was $38.00. Reading your post reminded me that there are so many things we, as privelaged Americans, have to be thankful for – like the ability to spend $38.00 freely on whatever we choose… totally unnecessary things, usually. How humbling to know that the money I would have spent on another shower curtain could potentially help another family obtain the basic necessities that they need to provide for their children for a month! I would love to learn more about the Compassion orgainzation so that we can do the same for a child. Thank you for sharing your experience! God bless your journey! P.S. I didn’t buy the shower curtain.

  45. Chelsey

    This is so beautiful! Thank you for the reminder….

  46. Amy

    I would add the opportunity to make choices and a loving environment in which they experience the consequences, if there are any. I would like my children to be well versed in making choices, weighing out the pros and cons well before the fly the nest, so to speak.

  47. Erin Moore

    Someone to tell them about Jesus and his love for them!

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. My husband was there for a few weeks last summer.

  48. Dave Higgs-Vis @ Folkabout Baby

    I don’t think there’s anything more that kids truly NEED. Sure, there’s lots more that they could want, but you’ve summed up the only things that a child needs to thrive.

    Your post reminds of a trip I took to Sierra Leone, where the kids were so happy, even though they lived in what Westerners might consider squalor. It’s so important to remember that happiness is a simple thing, and we only believe otherwise because of what we’ve been told by others.

    Great post!

  49. Lynn

    That was a beautiful article. Thank you, I enjoyed reading it.

  50. lusiana158

    Take care of your children is responsible.thank for sharing

  51. Andrew Walker

    Hi there. This is a really interesting post. Taught me a lot about kids that I haven’t have, not even one, yet. But in the future, when I have them, I think it will be easier for me since I know some things about what they really need. You know, some parents were ended up just spoiling their kids, and I don’t want to be that kind of parents. Thanks for sharing.

  52. Charlotte

    I think you are so right. Far too often parents compensate for a lack of time with their kids by buying them more stuff. We’ve just been to see friends with a newborn who have bought so much stuff but don’t have the time to play with the baby as they both work. Kids don’t need much, just a warm, loving environment.

  53. Jennifer

    Heres what I fell kids need, or what I have seen my children, and children around me seem to thrive on:

    A SENSE OF PURPOSE-children have to conform to a society ruled by adults. They should be offered opportunities to:
    -verbally share what they think/feel/believe
    -communicate at their level of comprehension. Kids are too often baselined by age or other indentifying factors…
    -Be assured that how they feel matters. Their opinion matters.
    -Kids need to feel that they have some control…(may be poorly phrased)
    -for example-our local beach is polluted. My son expressed his concern re: people not considering pollution..I offered him the option to hand write a letter to the editor of the paper. He did. Many adults in the community mentioned reading his letter. He was so empowered by this….
    I wish adults would see that when we are anything but honest to our kids, THEY KNOW…and it hurts them…THAT one thing, deception, on any level, makes anyone feel that they cannot be trusted with the truth….and they act accordingly…
    Congrats for raising important q’s. Cheers!

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