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Do you have a request?

My children's sense of justice is growing rapidly. They are quick to point out when something is not fair. An accumulation of unfair events can push them over the edge.

They long to right the wrongs. As a result I have listened to many heartfelt and tearful statements along the lines of “K had two turns sitting in the front seat and I haven't gotten a turn,” or “L always gets to play on your tablet first and that's not fair!” or “I never get to have special time with Dad but E always does.”

I generally try to not be a defensive person, but there is nothing like the direct or implicit accusation of having perverted justice to turn on my big capital D defensive lever to full throttle. Oh that cuts deeply to the heart, that I, their own mother, have engaged in such an epic miscarriage of justice. I usually don't entertain thoughts along the lines of what a terrible and inadequate mother I am, but the accusation of being unfair can bring to life depressing thoughts I never knew I was harboring. Oh the horrors!

When I was a child the response I most remember hearing from grownups when I brought forth my own complaints about injustice was “Life is not fair.” A group of old friends from my elementary school once got chatting on Facebook about our school days, and a few of them remembered a teacher who very often would say: “Life is not fair. Repeat after me: life is not fair.”

I tried that line with my children once and it fell completely flat. They somehow did not make the magic connection between life being generally unfair and it being OK for their life to be unfair. I needed to find a different approach.

One of the younger children is still learning about the importance of saying please. It's not just about the magic word, it's about having a polite tone of voice, making a request rather than a demand. She forgets so her dad and I have taken to reminding her by asking: “Do you have a request?”

Usually that is enough of a reminder for her to rephrase her “you better give this to me, or else!” demand no one wants to meet into a sweet “can I please have this?” request no one can resist. But sometimes she needs us to rephrase it for her so she can repeat it. Sometimes we'll ask her to repeat it three times for practice.

Like many parents I struggle with the first world problem of children who are picky eaters. My children aren't extremely choosy, but they do seem to rotate through disliking ordinary foods at an alarming rate. I fix a meal. They tell me they don't like it. I tell them they have two choices: take it or leave it. They're not convinced. I lecture them about having a grateful rather than complaining heart.

If they get too much into the complaining part, I retell one of the stories of the Israelites complaining in the desert, playing their part in the most obnoxious whining voice I can muster: “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in this desert? If only we could go back to Egypt where we could eat cucumbers and leeks! Here all we get is this manna, and we're gonna all die of thirst anyway. Why can't we have meat for a change?” I'm paraphrasing, but that's the gist of it. Whine, whine, whine. Grumble, grumble, grumble. Complain, complain, complain. Whenever you are reading the stories of the Israelites grumbling in the desert, you have to put on the most whining voice possible–it really makes the story. There's also this great song by Keith Green that makes fun of the different ways they might have complained.

When I was younger (definitely before I had my own children) I thought God was rather tough on His people just for a little complaining. After all, their needs were real and at times quite desperate. At one point they were completely out of water. Everyone knows you can't survive long, especially exposed to the elements, without water. What's wrong with asking God to give you water when you're thirsty?

The answer is nothing. There's nothing wrong with asking God for water when you're thirsty, or your favorite meal on your birthday, or a brand new sports car, or a million dollars. There is nothing wrong with making a polite request to God about anything. If you say please, it's even better.

God would not have minded if the Israelites had asked Him for food when they were hungry, asked Him for water when they were thirsty, and asked Him for meat when they felt the need for more protein. He clearly wanted to give them all those things as shown by the fact that He did. The part He hated was the way they asked Him. His people were not making requests; they were making demands and accusations. They accused God on more than one occasion of intending to kill them all from the beginning. They demanded He give them what they wanted as if He owed them something.

After fielding similar demands and accusations from my own children (“you just want to make my life miserable!”), I can totally relate to the burning anger. Sometimes everything I most value about my motherhood can be brought into doubt by one particularly rude demand. And I don't like it one bit. And yes, my anger has burned against them as a result. And I won't even pretend it was a holy anger either.

One morning a few days ago my seven-year-old came to speak to me. The expression on her face and her stiff posture told me she was geared up for a fight. She started to chronicle all the previous times that her older sister had gotten to sit in the front seat of the van and the many times she had been “forced” to sit in the back. She ended her litany with an emphatic: “And that's not fair!”

My mind started to run through some defenses and refutations of what my daughter had just said. I certainly felt as if she was holding me personally responsible for all this misery and injustice. I opened my mouth to say something, and what came out was: “Do you have a request?”

She looked at me blankly. I prompted her. “It sounds like you really want to sit in the front seat of the van. Is that what you want?” She nodded. “OK, how about asking me for a turn sitting in the front seat.”

“Mom, can I please sit in the front next time we drive somewhere?”

“You sure can. Just remind me when we're loading up.”

And that's when it hit me. My parents and teachers were right when they told me as a child that life was fundamentally unfair. I realize now that what they meant was that a state of unfairness is life's default option. And it helps to know and understand this. However, we don't have to accept life's unfairness all the time. We have a very powerful recourse at our disposal. It's called the polite request, you know, where you ask nicely and say please.

Did a sibling get an extra cookie the last time there was an odd number of cookies to divide up? Would you like the extra cookie next time? Then how about asking for it? Has it been a long time since you had some special one on one time with a parent? Then ask for some special time.

I have found that while my children do occasionally ask for truly impossible things, for the most part their wants and needs are quite reasonable and I'm happy to do what I can to fulfill them. I just find myself getting off track when those wants and needs are presented to me as demands and accompanied with accusations. The demands and accusations feel like an attack and my first priority becomes to ward off the attack, which unfortunately also means warding off the core want or need if I can't separate the two.

The question “Do you have a request?” is a great way for me to gently put the responsibility of separating the two back onto them, and giving them the opportunity to express their desire in a way that is more likely to get a favorable response, whether they are asking me, a friend, a future adult coworker, or God Himself. If “please” is the magic word, then “Do you have a request?” must be the magic sentence.

If the Israelites had phrased their petitions to God as simple requests, I believe God would not have been so angry with them. In fact, He would have delighted in meeting their needs in amazing and miraculous ways. As it was, He did meet their needs in miraculous and amazing ways, but it clearly wasn't fun for anyone.

If requests get a much better response (even when the answer is no, at least no one's anger is being kindled against anyone), then why is it that often my first instinct whether I'm dealing with my children, my husband, or God, is to make a demand, and a loaded one at that?

I think the reason is that it's actually difficult to make a polite request. It's not so much saying the words–that's easy. But there's a certain attitude that must be in place for the words to seem natural. This attitude includes a releasing of any sense of entitlement that might go along with the request. This comes into play most often when there's some sort of ongoing conflict. Maybe my husband told me he would do a certain thing for me but he forgot and his forgetting inconvenienced me. Maybe this happens once a week (or translated into my filter, All. The. Time.) The challenge for me lies in the situation where I will once again ask my husband to do this particular thing and refrain from unloading the baggage of all the previous occasions when I make my request. There is a time and a place for dealing with the baggage, but it's not when I'm making the particular request.

I tell my children that sometimes when they ask me for something like a glass of milk, if there is a lot of chaos or the baby suddenly needs a diaper change, I might completely forget all about their request. I tell them they need to ask me again just as politely as they did the first time. I really don't want to hear all about how I didn't get it for them the first time they asked.

When there have been previous requests that went unanswered (for whatever reason), making a polite request again becomes an act of faith and hope, as well as one of forgiveness. It's also an act of humility. Humility is many things, but one of them is a conscious decision to not insist on one's legitimate rights. When you make a polite request, you are choosing to let go of whatever may be owed to you (either in your own mind or truly legitimately). You are in a sense laying down your rights. You are giving the person a fresh start because you are not holding a score card in front of them when you simply ask. It is an act of unconditional love.

Those qualities of faith, hope, forgiveness, humility and especially love are not generally default qualities and so must be cultivated and worked on. If we don't really have those qualities in us, then making a polite request will be more difficult. I think it's general lack of virtue that makes the act of making a polite request feel awkward and unnatural. But the good news is that making requests is something that can be practiced, and such practice will open up the possibilities of growing in these virtues as well. So if the virtuous life seems out of reach, we can all at least practice making polite requests. And this goes for prayer too.

When I go to pray to God about a particular situation that is upsetting me, sometimes I will find myself beginning to make demands, then justifying them by telling Him all about what He owes me, then accusing Him of something terrible if He won't give me what I want (after all, it's the least He can do). Then I can almost hear Him cut through all that grumbling and complaining with one simple question: “Do you have a request?”

Oh. Right. Rewind.

Catholicism | Devtome Writers


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