Children who complain and drag their feet sure are a lot of trouble, aren't they? Dealing with a child's moaning and grumbling can quickly sour the mood for any parent and set the stage for more trouble to come.

Many of the problems created by a child's complaining can be resolved by training. While asking children to "Stop complaining!" rarely works, teaching them how to complain better is more effective.

Much of the time, the problem with children's complaints isn't what they say, but how they say it. Teaching your child better ways to express herself when she doesn't like something will benefit both you and your child-you, because you want your child to speak respectfully to you; and your child, because she's trying to find ways to get you to respect her point of view.

Examples From Everyday Life

Maggie

Wrinkling her cute, freckled nose in disgust, 4-year-old Maggie pushes her bowl away in disgust. "I don't like your chili. It looks like throw-up!" She then pretends to vomit, something she saw the big kids do at day care that day.

"There's nothing wrong with my chili," says her father, offended. "Last week you said it was yummy. Boy, it sure is hard to please you."

Of course Dad is annoyed. After taking the time to fix a good meal, he expects his daughter to enjoy the food he served her. Instead, Maggie not only rejects her bowl of chili, she insults the cook!

But Dad can turn the situation into an opportunity to teach Maggie a better way to say that she doesn't want to eat the food that is offered.

"Hey, Maggie, it's OK to say, 'No thanks' or 'Thank you but I'm not hungry' if you don't want to eat something. But, just like I wouldn't say your drawing is 'yucky' even if I didn't want to hang it over my desk, it's not OK to tell the cook his food is yucky when you don't want to eat it."

"OK, Dad. No thanks, I don't want to eat your chili tonight. I'll just eat the cornbread."

"Thanks, honey, I appreciate that you said 'no' politely."

Maggie's father wisely sidesteps a power struggle by not urging her to eat. And he avoids unhealthy pampering by not fixing her a different meal. Maggie, a healthy little girl, can miss dinner without harm if she chooses.

Sammy

Five-year-old Sammy is grumbling again. "You always give Aaron what he wants, and you always tell me no. It's not fair!"

"That's not true," his mother responds, irritated by the same complaint she's heard many times today. "Give me a break. You got to go first last time."

At the heart of children's complaints, we often hear them trying to defend what is right and protest what is wrong. Thus, a child complaining about unfairness might be letting you know he cares about the principle of fairness. A complaint about meanness could be your child's way of saying he believes in the principle of kindness.

Because children are still learning how to express themselves, they often make mistakes. Grumbling and complaining aren't the best ways for them to stand up for their principles, and they need help to learn how to do it better.

"I've been hearing you complain a lot about unfairness, Sammy. It sounds like fairness is really important to you."

"Yeah, people in our family shouldn't act unfair. That's not the way families are supposed to be!" Sammy is touched by hearing that his mother cares about what is important to him, and his tears begin to flow. "I hate it when nobody is being fair to me."

Gently pulling him close, his mother says, "Your caring about fairness is one of the things I love about you, Sammy. I believe fairness is very important, too. Can we work together to solve our problems and make our family more fair?" Snuggling closer, Sammy agrees while thinking about this wonderful new information. Instead of complaining (which never worked anyway) he can work with his mother to solve unfairness problems!

Tips for Improving Your Child's Complaints

  • "Instead of saying it that way, you can say it this way." Young children need coaching to learn more polite ways of disagreeing, refusing and standing up for what they believe is right. Teach them how to speak up for themselves while showing respect for others.

  • Listen for the positive principles your children are defending at the heart of their complaints. By appreciating what they stand up for, you can offer them better ways to express their principles and work with others to improve things.

  • As children are learning more polite ways to complain, they will make mistakes. If your child speaks in a grouchy or rude way, smile (if you can!) and say, "That's not going to work; would you like to try again and make it more polite?"

  • If your child continues, simply stop. "I'm not willing to continue to listen and I don't want to fight with you. We can try to talk about this in a better way later."


Emory Luce Baldwin is a family therapist and certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program. PEPparent.org