needs vs wants When I was younger and held my beliefs like a stick that was good for leaning on, and sometimes for swinging at people with, I had some life-shaping experiences with people who lived in extreme poverty.

My life took course because of what I had seen and touched and felt among the poor. But as I changed, it took me time to understand that I can’t hand people my beliefs – I can only provide experiences that will help shape their convictions.

Nowhere is this truer than in parenting. I so desperately want my kids to be willing to sacrifice for the ones Jesus seemed to care about so much – the ones who didn’t fit, the poor, the oppressed.

My children were born in the world of the “haves” and they live surrounded by the message that to consume is to be whole. But telling my kids to clean their plates because other kids don’t have enough to eat – this is a useless exercise.

I have to provide avenues for them to learn these lessons for themselves. Becoming friends with a child who writes letters from a slum is one of those experiences. Eating simple, staple foods for 40 days is another.

My son fell in love with Haiti as a 5-year-old. He had recently learned the value of money, because Lightning McQueen was one of his favorite toys, and because brilliant marketers know that if you place a bright red trinket at 24 inches off the ground, begging will ensue and parents will do anything to restore peace in the grocery checkout lane.

But I feel it’s my duty to push back on the marketers. If my kid wants something, he can earn it. He can learn the value of money.

So he did, and started collecting shiny little cars with eyeballs and smiles and names. He earned quarters for picking up his room and attempting to shovel the walk when it snowed. And we got out three glass jars.

Every time he earned the four dollars he would need to buy a new car, the trip to the store was postponed until he had earned two extra dollars. One dollar went in a savings jar, and one went in a giveaway jar.

The savings jar became the source of a few conflicts.

Son: “But save it for what?”

Daddy: “For something you need in the future.”

Son: “But I need Mater. He’s Lightning’s best friend.”

Daddy: “That’s not a need, that’s a want…”

And so on.

But the giveaway jar made sense. Find someone else who has a need, and give that person your money. So he diligently saved a quarter at a time, and bought the marketing lie that just one more toy would make him happier than the last.

The toy collection was growing, and the giveaway jar held somewhere in the neighborhood of $4.25, the day a radio news story about Haiti came on during the car ride home from kindergarten.

It was during the first major global food crisis a few years ago, when rice and bean prices were out of control in Haiti, when the daily news was showing pictures of mud-pies being sold for food on the streets of Port-au-Prince. What perked my son’s money-tuned ears was the words “fifty cents.”

Son: “Fifty cents? What are they talking about fifty cents, Daddy?”

Daddy: “They’re talking about it because that’s how much the daily price of food went up in Haiti this week.”

My brain went scrambling into overdrive to give this figure some context.

Daddy: “How much do you spend on a Lightning McQueen Car?”

Son: “About four dollars. Sometimes three dollars and fifty cents.”

Daddy: “Well, for the amount of money you spend on one toy car, someone in Haiti could buy food to eat for several days. It wouldn’t be very much food, but they could buy some rice and some beans and some vegetables.

But now the price of food is going up, and people don’t have enough money to buy food. And some people are even eating dirt just to have something in their bellies.”

More questions, then a brief lesson on macro-economics and deforestation, international food subsidies, and the plight of the Haitian rice farmer. Sounds over-the-top, but I’m serious.

I’ve always figured if my kids are old enough to ask a full question, they’re old enough to receive a full answer. They might not understand it all, but it’s better than being patronizing. Which might have led to the words that came from his 5-year-old mouth when he interrupted me, just as I was getting to the part about Haitian rice farmers not being able to get a good price for their crops because of US farm policies.

Son, with great urgency: “But Daddy, I’ve got a solution for that problem!”

Pause. Surprise at the swagger in his voice.

Daddy: “What’s that, buddy?”

Son: “Duh. My giveaway jar!”

Four dollars and twenty five cents in a small glass jar, waiting for a need. Need had just been found, and a little boy was suddenly captivated by the story of Haiti.

From then on, just the name of the country was enough to perk his ears. He met a maid in a hotel who spoke nothing but Creole, and invited her home.

“Would you like some of our food?”

So we started sponsoring Billy in Haiti, who was born the same day as my son, and experience began to shape convictions.

My children have been joining me on this journey of eating simply for 40 days.

Lunch and breakfast follow their normal routines, but dinner is some combination of rice, chicken, beans, avocadoes, oranges and bananas. My wife’s great cooking has something to do with helping them approach it as an adventure, but I know it’s an experience they won’t forget.

What experiences have shaped you?


Get a glimpse of the foods Nate’s family is and isn’t eating during their 40-day fast!

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  1. Mar 12, 2012
    at 7:33 am

    Thanks for sharing. I’ve never quite gotten over the first time I met the girl our family sponsors in Nairobi. Her tooth was what stood out to me – black, crumbling, and seemingly held together by chance. When I came back we quickly discerned needs and wants. Had to.

  2. Mar 12, 2012
    at 8:52 am

    Great post! Yes, there’s nothing like seeing poverty in person, or hearing a great object lesson, to make the difference between needs and wants very clear. Thanks, Nate, and it sounds like you and your wife are doing a great job with your son!

  3. Mar 12, 2012
    at 12:53 pm

    Sponsorship has shaped me… shaped who I am, my perspective, my relationship with Christ, my heart, my role as a wife and mother. I applaud your parenting approach, and wish I’d grown up with those perspectives and experiences, but it’s never, ever too late to learn it, to teach it, and to lead well.

    Thank you for sharing!

  4. Mar 12, 2012
    at 4:05 pm

    Thanks for sharing! I really like hearing how this fast is affecting families and what great lessons are being learned. It is so surprising how little others eat, and how sweets are not on the menu. We take so much granted. Thank you for this insightful post :)

    • Nate Ernsberger
      Mar 13, 2012
      at 7:29 am

      Lizzie we do have a fun story about sweets – because even in poverty, extravagance and celebration are part of life. When my son’s birthday was approaching he asked whether his sponsored child in Haiti would have birthday cake too. I mentioned that it would more likely be some sugar cane, which does grow in Haiti and is regularly eaten as a sweet treat. He requested some for himself, and sugar cane has now become a regular part of my son’s birthday celebration, as he practices solidarity with his sponsored child on his birthday.

      • Mar 13, 2012
        at 6:54 pm

        That is soo cool! I did not know you could get sugar cane in the US. I have a child from Haiti as well :)

  5. Mar 12, 2012
    at 10:10 pm

    Sponsorship has definitely shaped me in ways I never could have imagined. Motherhood has also done its fair share of shaping me.

    My family joins me once a week on the journey of eating more simply. I find myself really looking forward to our shared “simple” meal of rice and beans. I’m thinking it’s something we’ll continue even after the 40 days are over.

  6. milissa hubbard
    Mar 12, 2012
    at 11:04 pm

    It is wonderful that you are teaching your children the difference between wants and needs. More children and adults need to learn that and I include myself.

  7. Dennis Wear
    Mar 15, 2012
    at 10:49 am

    While I was reading the above article, tears slowly ran down both of my cheeks. It remained me how spoiled I am and how spoiled the people of the USA are. I have a beautiful house I live in and keeps me dry from the rain, warm during the winter and cool in the summer.
    I need to buy food I can go to neither Food 4 Less or Stater Bros, not from a merchant who is ripping his people off by over priced food. Would you eat a mudpie for a meal?
    I have two “I needs” in the car garage. Now my stomach is knotted up. Did I really need them? No, not really. At the time I felt I “needed” them, but I am just a spoiled American.
    Thanks for allowing me to share. I learned a lot while reading your message. Thanks for sharing.

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