wants, and one's ability to achieve them, should develop in parallel. keep them in sync, and work to increase both. then there's no limit to what you can want and achieve, and you won't be disappointed by failing to get what you want.

let's look at this topic with a focus on parents and children. we'll start with some background on what most people think:

you can be nice to kids most of the time. and you should be. but sometimes kids want things that are bad for them, such as to watch TV instead of learn math. kids get distracted by short term whims.

so kids need to be guided. they are ignorant of what's in their long term best interest. sometimes kids don't even see 15 minutes ahead. the parent is wiser, more knowledgeable, and has more foresight. so parents should act as guides, and their kids will thank them later. ("guiding" here means thwarting the kid's current preferences.)

and if parent and child disagree, parent is probably right. that's not guaranteed, but much more likely. so it's better to go with the parent's idea, since it'll be way better on average.


people have various arguments for these authoritarian attitudes towards children. some arguments are crap, but others involve more reasonable confusion. maybe they don't know something Popper wrote, never heard of TCS, or don't understand rationality.

a major argument is that kids have lots of unreasonable, unrealistic wants. kids are always asking for stuff. and they can't have it all, that won't work. kid wants a unicorn, which doesn't exist. kid wants a pony, which costs too much. kid wants to stay at a store after it closes. kid wants every toy he sees on the shelf. kid wants to be fed now, in the next 3 seconds, when it's actually going to take a couple minutes to communicate hunger to parent and wait for parent to get a bottle or food out.

and people blame lots of this on children's ignorance. kids are too dumb and ignorant to know better. parents know more about life, so they see kids being mistaken – but that doesn't mean kids will listen.

kid is not born wanting a unicorn, or a pony, or to stay at stores past closing, or toys, or for all his feeding to be instantaneous.

all those things, which cause parent-child conflicts, aren't inborn. they aren't due to ignorance. they're ideas child created after birth. they're non-ignorance, things where the child now has an opinion instead of no opinion.

kids are born ignorant. but the ignorance includes preferences. kids aren't born with a bunch of unreasonable preferences. and they aren't born with a bunch of their preferences already being firm, strong, and non-negotiable.


here's an outline of how life should work when parents/educators don't screw it up:

at first child doesn't know what's possible to get. when he finds out something is possible, then he might want it.

first he learns about what is good or bad to want. how to decide what to want. then starts forming wants.

at first the child's wants will be flexible and negotiable. he'll make mistakes, and get corrected, and change his mind.

as he gets better at it, and has lots of success creating wants that actually work, and getting them, then he'll start having firmer opinions. he'll still be open to other ideas, but he might argue back more if parent disagrees, since he has more idea what he's doing now. and if he's wrong, he needs to discuss it to find out where he went wrong, where his methods let him down. he needs to really understand the issue instead of just accept parent's word for it.

child can develop his skill at getting things, and his desire to have those things, together. neither one has to get way ahead of the other. as long as they stay at a similar level, then he never has to be upset. he'll want things, and get them. he'll get a bit better at life, want more things, and get them too. etc. he can work up gradually.

things go wrong when a person overreaches: wants stuff (now) that is beyond their ability to get (now). or wants something in a month or year, but won't be able to get it by then.

don't want things that are too hard for you to achieve. if something might be too hard, then keep your preferences about it flexible.

people suffer or get upset when they want something and don't get it. as long as all their wants are met, they will be happy.

so it's really important to manage what one wants. if one really wants a unicorn or yacht, that mistake can cause suffering.


some people think the solution to life is to not want anything. this is especially associated with Eastern thinking, and stuff like Buddhism and spiritual monks.

but what's the point of a life where you don't want anything? not wanting anything is like being dead. that's all wrong.

wants (also called preferences or desires) mean looking at the world and judging. thinking some things are better than others. not treating everything as equal. trying to figure out the difference between things.

it's important to have some ideas, make some judgments, care about something. live, choose, think. don't just blend in and accept everything exactly as it is, and have no effect on the world.

wanting stuff is a bit like having goals in life. it's good to set goals, and achieve them. it's bad to just never have any goals at all, never try for anything. one's gotta try in life. want some stuff and try for it.

Remember the bum who steals a ride on Dagny Taggart's train:

"I don't think it will be any use. But there's nothing to do in the East except sit under some hedge and wait to die. I don't think I'd mind it much now, the dying. I know it would be a lot easier. Only I think that it's a sin to sit down and let your life go, without making a try for it."

And remember when Dominique asks Peter Keating it's where his I is, where his self is, after he says she never expressed any desires in their marriage:

"Dominique," he said, softly, reasonably, "that's it. Now I know. I know what's been the matter all the time."

"Has anything been the matter?"

"Wait. This is terribly important. Dominique, you've never said, not once, what you thought. Not about anything. You've never expressed a desire. Not of any kind."

"What's wrong about that?"

"But it's ... it's like death. You're not real. You're only a body. Look, Dominique, you don't know it, I'll try to explain. You understand what death is? When a body can't move any more, when it has no ... no will, no meaning. You understand? Nothing. The absolute nothing. Well, your body moves—but that's all. The other, the thing inside you, your—oh, don't misunderstand me, I'm not talking religion, but there's no other word for it, so I'll say: your soul–your soul doesn't exist. No will, no meaning. There's no real you any more."

"What's the real me?" she asked. For the first time, she looked attentive; not compassionate; but, at least, attentive.

"What's the real anyone?" he said, encouraged. "It's not just the body. It's ... it's the soul."

"What is the soul?"

"It's—you. The thing inside you."

"The thing that thinks and values and makes decisions?"

"Yes! Yes, that's it. And the thing that feels. You've—you've given it up."

"So there are two things that one can't give up: one's thoughts and one's desires?"

"Yes! Oh, you do understand! So you see, you're like a corpse to everybody around you. A kind of walking death. That's worse than any active crime. It's ..."

"Negation?"

"Yes. Just blank negation. You're not here. You've never been here. If you'd tell me that the curtains in this room are ghastly and if you'd rip them off and put up some you like—something of you would be real, here, in this room. But you never have. You've never told the cook what dessert you liked for dinner. You're not here, Dominique. You're not alive. Where's your I?"

"Where's yours, Peter?" she asked quietly.


so, some of the bigger picture is people think children can't get everything they want. parent has to just step in and stop the kid sometimes, put his foot down, say no.

but that shouldn't happen. if that happens, something went wrong. there's no reason kid has to create wants that won't work and be unwilling to change his mind. he doesn't have to overreach and stick to it.

wants and the capabilities to achieve them should stay in sync. parenting should look at how to help child keep them in sync in the first place. don't just assume or expect a disaster and then focus on how to manage the disaster.


reasons children's wanting commonly goes wrong include:

- lots of things children want are realistic and would work fine. totally achievable. except parent says no anyway, or doesn't try his best to help, or wants to keep his money for beer instead of for child. it's hard for children to predict and take into account parental thwarting, in addition to managing their own wants and capabilities.

- parents often give poor advice because they aren't very skilled at deciding what to want. they aim too low and waste a bunch of their life. or aim too high and fail. or both. and, worse, they are often bad at changing their mind about what they want. they commonly get upset when they find something isn't working, instead of being like, "oh cool, let me make an adjustment with this new knowledge"

- parents think child being upset frequently is just how life is, and don't try that much to avoid it. or they try at first, fail, then give up.

- parents don't pay attention. they get bored and aren't interested in the details of what their kid is doing. so when kid wants something, which parent should be able to help with, the parent is confused about the situation, wasn't following it, so can't help.

- parents are inconsistent. so kid may find some stuff works. he wants it, and gets it. then he wants something similar, and this time it doesn't work because the parent is weird about that one, or just in a bad mood today. so it's very confusing for kids

- parent doesn't know the ideas on this webpage, doesn't understand the issue. so his advice to kid is different stuff that doesn't work. so the kid tries it, fails.

- parents think wanting much is selfish, and you have to learn to share and give charity and help others, instead of focusing on your own selfish desires. so they have a problem with wanting itself and handle it poorly.

- some parents think "you can't get everything you want in life". so they teach their kid not to even try to keep his wants in sync with what he can get.

- some parents encourage overreaching by saying to aim big, but without explaining how to do it in useful, effective ways. they don't explain the difference between striving to improve your life step by step, and just focusing on a distant conclusion like "i want to be president" without thinking much about the steps to get there.


a reason people become short sighted is because they are bad at getting what they want. if they don't trust the process of achieving, don't have confidence in it, then they will go after stuff without much process. they'll look for stuff they can get in the short term. you have to be good at wanting things and getting them, and have lots of success, before you will try for something that'll take a month, let alone 20 years.

if you usually mess stuff up that takes more than a few days, then it's sorta good to be short sighted. because trying a long term thing probably wouldn't have worked anyway.

lots of why kids seem short sighted is because their parents stop them getting what they want so much. the kid can't have long term plans because parent may stop him, for no reason, unpredictably, at any time. anything a kid wants could be messed up by parental whim. so it's hard for kid to think way ahead and plan ahead and really expect to get it.

so parents say kids are short sighted to justify not letting the kid get what he wants. but they are actually making the kid short sighted by preventing him from getting what he wants. they're causing the problem.

(Did you like this? Click for a list of all the essays.)

By Elliot Temple, Dec 2015 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!