You know the sound.
You’re with your kids in line at the grocery store, in the third hour of a very long road trip, or waiting at the doctor’s office. Perhaps, dinner isn’t to their liking, or it’s time to take a bath, do homework, or go to bed and someone simply doesn’t want to do it.
If you’re a parent, you get complaints nearly every day, and often more than once a day. We take them in stride. But, if you’re already feeling stress, pressure, or overwhelmed (basically, if you’re human), the whining and complaining from your kids can leave you feeling less than your best self.
Becoming a parent is one of the most difficult jobs you’ll ever have, yet most sign on anyway (in my case, four times over). Why? Because the love we feel for our children is immense, they give us perspective as to what is important, and parenting is one of the most powerful ways we can go about bringing more goodness into our lives and into in the world. We do it because we have certainty that the experience will not only be rewarding, but will enrich our lives in ways we never imagined.
I can say wholeheartedly, in that vision we never imagined all the complaining.
Why do kids complain? There is no short answer . . . but I will give you a hint; no one — mainly, our egos — likes to be told what to do.
All human have egos, that includes children. And when that ego senses that a teacher or parent is going to encourage it to change and grow, it’s going to resist. My husband Michael was spot on when he said, “If there is somebody – a teacher, a guide, a friend, etc. – in whom we haven’t found any reasons yet not to listen, it’s most likely because they are not asking us to do anything important. It is a rule that if somebody has the potential to help us change and make a real connection to the Light, the complaints are going to have to come.” It’s our job to guide our children’s mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual growth, therefore being on the receiving end of complaints is part of the job description. But when you break their protests down, there are really only two reasons kids complain: they desire connection or they lack appreciation.
I think many parents don’t want to hear their kids complain, because it makes them feel less-than, perhaps even a failure as a parent. Like, if the parent was doing a better job or wasn’t doing X, Y, or Z wrong, their kids would be happier. When my kids were young and complained, veteran parents told me to ignore them and they would stop, to literally turn away from them. This advice astounded me. Ignore them? I wondered how this could possibly work. If the person you trusted most in the world ignored your needs, how would you respond?
I have to admit I tried it, just to see if it would work. It did not. (My intuition was right!) What I learned over time was that the thing my kids needed most when the complaints were elevating was connection. Ignoring them just made them shut down and feel unheard. And it didn’t make their feelings go away — it did just the opposite; it increased the intensity.
So, I began experimenting. Every time one of them complained about something, I turned toward them, bent down to meet them at their height, looked them in the eye, and gave them my full attention. Soon, I was able to notice small nuances in behavior that signaled their needs to me. For instance, if Miriam started hanging on my arm or tugging at my clothes, I offered her a hug. When David interrupted a conversation with my husband, I’d tell him I wanted to hear what he has to say, but to wait one minute while I finish this conversation. Then, I’d shift gears and take interest in his day at school. Other times, all they needed was a partner for playtime after a round of running errands. We can get so caught up in our grown-up worlds that we forget about the little people we’re pulling along for the ride. In all honesty, most of us would complain, too.
The reality of life (whether you’re a kid or an adult) is that things won’t always go your way. When this happens, kids get upset. “But it’s not fair!” they’ll cry. And sometimes they are right. Though, it takes time for them to fully understand the larger truth that fair doesn’t mean equal, and sometimes fairness is irrelevant to the matter at hand.
When complaining increases and they don’t seem to need connection, pay attention. What their complaints could be telling you, as the parent or caregiver, is that they need help cultivating appreciation. Most kids have so much. And we work hard to meet their every need. This is a good thing. Though, as a result they often don’t know what it’s like to lack for anything, which can cause an expectation that things will always go their way. We can undo the sense of entitlement that leads to complaints by creating a culture of gratitude in our family lives.
Try building a habit of gratitude into your daily routines. Here are a few ideas to consider:
Three Good Things
At the end of the day ask your kids to name three good things that happened since they woke up. This can be a dinnertime or bedtime activity. It’s especially helpful when the day was particularly hard. You can and should acknowledge those hard moments. Yet, over time, routinely remembering to be grateful helps wire children’s brains to see the good when faced with difficulty.
Write down the things your kids are grateful for – each one on a separate scrap of paper – and place them in a jar. Once a week ask them to pull out a paper and share what it says with the family. They can also pull from the jar when the complaints pop up as a reminder of all they have to show appreciation for.
Say Thank You
Help your children write thank-you cards after they receive a gift, go on a fun outing with a family member, or when someone shows them kindness. This requires a bit of diligence on our end, but the pay-off is big. When kids make a habit of saying thank you in a meaningful way, they grow up to be adults who feel comfortable expressing gratitude regularly.
The main ingredient for making appreciative children is sharing. Plain and simple. If this sounds familiar, it should. Sharing is a key foundation of kabbalistic wisdom. When it comes to raising grateful kids, the same spiritual principles apply. Remind kids there are people who have far less than us, and make a habit of performing charitable acts as a family. Regular toy purges and donations to second hand stores are a wonderful way to start. I know many parents who already do this as a solo activity when the kids are out of the house. Elicit their help! Ask them to choose which toys and clothes they are ready to send to a new home. By involving them in the act, they begin to automatically think of sharing with others. Don’t be surprised if they start rounding up items for donation on their own. By guiding our children toward a life rich with helping others, generous acts, and kindness, we are giving them the tools they need to become grateful adults. And those who appreciate the goodness life has to offer have a resilient spirit.
The truth is, our kids are going to have their hearts broken. Life just isn’t always going to go their way. It’s important we show them it’s okay to feel these big emotions. It’s even okay for them to express their emotions. Sometimes it will come out in the form of complaints. That’s okay. They have a right to tell you how they feel. Often, kids just need us to acknowledge the fact that they are experiencing challenges. Listen to them and remind them that difficulty is a part of life and you will always be there to help them work through obstacles. Connection and feeling heard may be all they need to recalibrate, leave the complaints behind, and feel gratitude.