Guilty Upon Request

Or “I know I shouldn’t ask, but. . .”

The appeals process is anchored in the old “divide and conquer” notion. Appealing works best when parents are separated by walls, buildings, miles, anything to keep them from communicating with each other, at least temporarily. But there is another, more versatile strategy that kids use, either in conjunction with or as an alternative to the appeals process. This is the guilty upon request tactic. It doesn’t require that parents be divided to be conquered. They can even be standing side by side, consulting with each other. This tactic has power because it engenders guilt in parents by making them feel hardhearted or unreasonable if they don’t comply with a request.

I first saw this tactic performed several years ago upon two quite softhearted and reasonable parents. Chuck and Darlene had three children, ages sixteen, thirteen, and ten. After a few family counseling sessions, I noticed that all three kids shared ideas on how to raise Mom and Dad. One of their collaborative endeavors was the guilty upon request tactic. Here’s how it operated. One or more of the kids would want something―say, permission to practice hairstyling by giving Fido a permanent, or a ride to the pool where all the kids swim, somewhere in the next county. Now, in the kids’ mind, a direct approach with either request had at best a fifty-fifty chance of sanction. These were not acceptable odds, so something was needed to tilt the draw a little more favorably. The kids knew that the proper approach would do wonders for extracting a “yes” from Mom and Dad, or at minimum a begrudging “OK.” Therefore, they would gear up for a touchy request by assuming an appropriately deferential posture in all respects: nonverbal signals, verbal tone, and verbal content. They stood uneasily, shifting their weight from foot to foot; their eyes were roaming the floor, and their hands were hidden in their pockets. Their voices were subdued; at times they spoke in a borderline whisper (particularly effective in eliciting a request to speak up). They groped for words, implying uncertainty and reluctance even to ask (“I know what your answer is going to be, but..”; “Mom, I probably shouldn’t even ask this, but …”). Taken together, the overall picture was unmistakable: “Mom and Dad, we come to you fully expecting that our request won’t be granted because you deny us most things anyway.” And nearly every time, this well-orchestrated approach had the desired effect. Chuck and Darlene struggled with self-images of being unfit and unfeeling parents. Consequently, they granted most petitions. Even on those rare occasions when they didn’t, they felt bad enough so that they almost never turned down two requests in a row.

Chuck and Darlene’s kids had the guilty upon request tactic down to a science. But many kids who practice this technique aren’t even aware they’re using it. They approach their folks in genuine doubt that their proposition will be accepted. Ironically, this is the very thing that makes their request so hard to weigh objectively. What basically kind-hearted parent can refuse a supplication so humbly preferred? Not too many. And I’m not saying you should. I’m saying that you need to consider any request on its own merits, unfettered by your own guilt. Certainly, there may be nothing wrong with swimming where all the kids swim. But if you know that particular days are notorious for alcohol or drug use at the pool, or if you’ve already made two twenty-mile round-trip jaunts to the pool this week, you need to respond to the swimming query in light of these factors, without striving to avoid appearing the wicked witch or warlock. Unless your judgment is free of extraneous considerations, you may find yourself acquiescing in something that’s not in your child’s best interests, or yours, for that matter.

But what if your kids really do think you’re a nasty person whenever you don’t satisfy a request? Rest assured, this is standard childhood practice; their perception will be temporary. You do far too much for your kids to be chronically judged as selfish or ungiving. At the absolute longest, their perception will linger until you fulfill their next request. Then you’ll return to their good graces again. But, more important, you can’t make decisions according to how your kids will perceive them or you. Your children’s welfare and your rights as a parent come well before any passing shift in your children’s opinion of you. Additionally, the surest road to permanent ogrehood is to comply indiscriminately with all requests. Rare is the parent who can stay abreast of a child’s expectations and wants. Eventually, your time, finances, and energy will be exhausted. And your kids will be very upset at you, for they will never have learned to accept your human limitations.

Are there ways to respond to the guilty upon request tactic? I hope so. No parents should have to feel guilty merely because someone, even their own child, asks them to. One good response is simply to observe a child’s behavior for him: “You look like you think there’s no chance I’m going to say yes,” or “I think you’re trying to make me feel guilty if I say no.” Follow this with the assertion that you won’t let your decision be influenced by guilt, since that wouldn’t be fair to either of you. Most kids, once they realize you’re reading them accurately, will begin to make more straightforward requests. But even if they cling to their old style, at least they know exactly where you stand. Another suggestion: You needn’t run through this explicit explanation every time. After a few replays, you can make your point better by saying, “Aha, the old guilty upon request tactic.”

Of course, nothing takes the place of your own inimitable style. One father chose to answer his daughter’s inquiries in the same spirit in which they were asked. With a gently mimicking tone, he would look down, shift his weight uneasily, grope for words, and counter with, “I know how you’re going to react to my answer; I’m not sure I should even say it.” Dad’s talent for lighthearted mimicry both made his point and provided his daughter with a mirror in which to see herself.

Some kids calculate ways to make parents feel guilty at their request. Other kids get the same result through their genuine childish innocence. Either way, this is a subtle tactic that you need to recognize and resist. Otherwise, it will adversely color your parental decisions. It will also give you an opinion of yourself you probably don’t deserve.

You’re a Better Parent Than You Think! Pages 170-173
Copyright © 1985 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Fireside Edition 1992