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. 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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.