When Did You Stop Asking for What You Want?

It’s a Saturday morning in early December, which means I’m sitting at the kitchen table with the kids, a cup of coffee, and a discussion about all the Christmas gifts they want. I’m annoyed by all the asking—it seems a little materialistic—so I decide to rain on their parade:

gift

Photo Credit: Jamie In Bytown via Compfight cc

I ask, “Which month do you like better—December or January?”

And of course they all scream, “December!”

So I ask, “Most of December, you don’t have any new gifts, but in January, you have all your new toys. If the gifts are so great, why do you like December more?”

They roll their eyes and ignore me and the stream of requests begins to flow again. As I listen, though, the stream of requests is my answer. What makes December so joyful for kids?

They are given the freedom to want and to ask.

Why We Quit Asking

From an early age, we get taught to not ask.

I do it to my children. Usually, when the asking piles up—Can you reach this for me? Can I have more ice cream? Will you read me one more book? When can we play video games? Can we go to the toy aisle?—I subtly discourage the asking. With quiet sighs. Or with eye rolls of my own. Or by getting up slowly and dramatically to grant the request.

As children, we learn our wanting is a burden.

School is organized around doing what you’re told and suppressing what you want—it’s all about raised hands and hall passes and a red stoplight in the lunchroom. The whole structure is designed to keep a kid from talking, wanting, and asking. (Thank you, Teachers, who quietly subvert this.)

As children, we learn our asking is forbidden.

So, as adults, the joy of asking is replaced by a feeling of guilt.

We feel guilty asking for raises, asking our spouse to help around the house, asking a waiter to take back the wrong order, or asking the person with an overflowing cart of groceries if we can move ahead of them with our single carton of milk. We even feel guilty asking for help: most clients arrive in therapy saying, “I shouldn’t need help like this.” As adults, our wants get buried beneath a mountain of guilt and shame and frustration.

We need to unearth them again.

And when we do, we’re going to discover our silenced requests are actually buried treasures. How can I be so sure? Because when we quit forbidding and start encouraging our children to fully want, the things they want are utterly beautiful.

What Happens When We Start Asking

In September, my oldest son asked if he could continue his annual birthday tradition. Every year, in lieu of presents, he asks his friends to bring bags of food for the local food pantry. Every year, we take a picture of the kids standing amongst a pile of food for hungry people. Every year, in the photo, the kids’ faces are plastered with joy.

My son wants beautiful things.

In October, my daughter asked if she could cut out, color, and deliver invitations for her friends to donate to the local food bank, so that disadvantaged families would have something to eat for Thanksgiving dinner. When we finally dropped the invitations into her friends’ backpacks at school, her smile finally stretched from ear to ear.

My daughter wants beautiful things.

In November, during the week before Thanksgiving, my kids went to a friend’s house and packed lunches for the children in their school who wouldn’t have access to their free school lunches over the weeklong break. My son said he saw a kid carrying one of the lunches. He said it was the best part of his day.

Our kids want beautiful things.

In the first weeks of December, my kids went shopping for Christmas gifts for the less fortunate children in their school. They bought basic items like shirts and coats and hats and gloves. While shopping, they bought materials to create Christmas gifts for each other. When they got home, they asked if they could forfeit some of their presents again this year to choose Christmas gifts for children in underdeveloped countries.

My kids want beautiful things.

In our area, there is an organization called Feed My Starving Children. Groups of parents and kids sign up to pack meals for hungry people half a world away. By the time the kids are done, they are glowing with joy. We tried to sign up for a time slot this year, but they’re all full. Too many other kids are already packing food and glowing with joy.

Kids want beautiful things.

So do adults, if we can give ourselves permission to want again.

So do adults, if we can become like children again.

We Need More Asking

At Christmastime, kids are joyful because we are giving them permission to be their good and beautiful selves and to connect with us through their asking. And they are teaching us something about ourselves and about joy:

Our wants aren’t ultimately bad or selfish. Our wants, in the end, reveal the depths of love within us. We must plumb those depths. And then, when we discover all the good and beautiful things we want, just waiting for a voice to make them real, we must start asking. It is a way of expressing who we truly are, and it is a way of connecting who we are to the people around us.

We don’t need less of that; we need more of that.

We need a world full of people wanting and asking.

So we might discover the treasure of love within us, so joy may finally come to the world, and so the magic of this month might last longer than a season.

Question: What is your deepest, most beautiful want? How might you start asking for it? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Next Post: The One Gift We’re All Searching For (And How to Unwrap It)

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Ken

    This post definitely woke something in me, as do most of your posts. I don’t know what I want… I just feel this strong feeling of want. I think I just feel grateful that you gave me permission to tell you how much I want. Thanks.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Ken, I’m so glad to hear that. That feeling of want doesn’t go away, and when we begin to listen to it and hear what it’s telling us, we are on the verge of some very exciting things. Please let us know as you continue to move toward those things!

  • Carrie

    Thank you for letting me know that I am not the only one who has had to learn to ask for what I what. What about asking for what I need? Yes, I want beautiful things for other people, but there are needs I needed met before I could give to others. I needed to learn to ask for those things. I think we are selfish when we have unmet needs. We demand, manipulate, whine, and hint trying to get those needs met. I’m thankful for putting aside those ineffective ways of trying to get my needs met and learning to ask. For now that I’m getting those needs met, I am able to meet some needs of others. That is indeed a beautiful thing!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Carrie, this is so well said! Asking for what we need is truly the beginning of our ability to give others what they need, and showing them how to ask!

  • Karen

    It is in asking that we connect. It is in the asking that we allow ourselves and others to be fully present. It is in asking that we admit I cannot live life alone come share it with me. My deepest and most beautiful want is to re-connect with myself- not the self that other people shaped me into or told me I was. I want to quit being a chameleon and trying to please others by acting as I think they want me to act. I want to connect with me and with that core knowledge begin to connect with others in a more honest way. To support the causes that I feel will make a difference.and to have the answer to my oft ask question What do I bring to the table in this situation?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Karen, you just articulated the progression beautifully: connect with self first, then others, and finally with our larger sense of purpose. My best to you as you begin seeking to reconnect with your true self.

  • CJ

    Very thought provoking post, Dr. K. I think it is in being able to ask in a safe environment, regardless of whether the response is yes or no, that we learn it’s OK. The disappointment of “no” is something we can learn to bear with good grace when we are free to ask. We are also then free to choose how we will respond. The inability ask at all is soul-destroying. When there is fear in just asking, it creates such an abiding bitterness and sadness that we can feel invisible and there is no point in even thinking about what we want or need. I know this to be true from my own life. Thank you for distilling the point so clearly, as you always do. Happy Holidays to you and your readers 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      CJ, this is very wise, and it sounds like it was hard-earned wisdom for you. When my closest friends tell me “no” to a request, I often say, “Thank you, now I know when you say yes you really mean yes!” A “no” in authentic relationship is sometimes just as valuable as a “yes.” Thank you for pointing that out.

  • drkellyflanagan

    I always love the comments on this blog, and the comments today are no different. They each add an additional level of nuance to the post that is very valuable. They should be appendices!

  • YouBeTheJudge

    Communicating our needs or wants is the first step to receiving. I lost my wife because I used to suppress my needs or want and only asked after thinking hard about my need or want. I normally put it in a very polite way and hoped she would not refuse. But she did refuse and in those few times when I had asked and I was turned down, it hurt a lot, which made me angry and hence ended up in divorce. Had I expressed my needs or my wants and asked every single time something came up, I would be in a different situation. We should always keep asking.