Those who love their children care enough to discipline them.
Proverbs 13:24


“I wish my kids would complain more!”

Said no one ever.

No parent enjoys hanging around a child who whines and oozes ungratefulness. Complaining eats away at our resolve, disintegrating any determination we have to be patient. Grateful kids are happy kids. So we do our best to teach our kids not to complain but to be thankful in ALL things.

Unfortunately how we do that doesn’t always work. Some tactics fall flat. How do I know? Let’s just say a lot of study combined with plenty of personal experience.

Here are three ways NOT to respond to complaining. These three common mistakes will get you nowhere. When it comes to parenting you don’t get a do-over. So save yourself some time, learn from others’ experience, and avoid these responses.


3 ineffective ways to respond to complaining

Response #1 – “Motivate” them to be thankful by comparing their situation with someone else’s.

How many times have you heard parents say, “You should be thankful for your green beans. Kids in Africa would love to have the food on your plate.”

This sounds like solid logic but it makes no sense at all. Think about it? If you didn’t like brussel sprouts would you hate them any less knowing someone else liked and wanted to eat them? This short comedy act–one of my favorites!shows how ridiculous this is.

A slightly different way of doing the same thing is countering their negative with a positive.

Your child slaps down a negative: “But, Mom, why does he get to have a sleepover!”

You counter with a positive: “Yes, but you got to go to grandma’s last week.”

As if one balances out the other. This just encourages your child to compare what he or she got to do with what someone else did. What if in his mind the two don’t balance each other out? What if in her mind the two things aren’t equal?


Phrase to avoid: “At least”.

“Dad, she always gets to sit in the front seat!” Well, at least you get to go to the mall with us.

“I never get to choose where we eat out.” At least you get to go out to eat.


A better alternative: Acknowledge how your kids feel FIRST. Don’t dismiss their feelings or dislikes. THEN address the complaining.


  • “I know you’re tired. It’s been a long day. We’ve got two more things to grab from the produce section then we’re heading home.”
  • “I understand you like to choose where we eat out. It is fun. Today’s your sister’s turn to choose.”
  • “I know green beans aren’t your favorite. There are a lot of things I don’t care for either. But we’re making Dad really happy because he really likes them.”



Response #2 – Try to make things fair. 

No parent likes to see their son or daughter disappointed. It’s no fun when your 7-year-old is invited to a party but the 8-year-old wasn’t included. A little complaining seems warranted. So we try to make it up to them.

Here’s the problem: The reward–the fun thing we try to compensate with–becomes the impetus for being thankful. Sometimes life isn’t fair. Their sister will be invited to a birthday party and they won’t. They’ll get a gift that doesn’t seem to measure up to the one their brother got. How you help them deal with it now becomes the basis for how they deal with disappointment later. No teacher, boss, spouse is going to follow them through their school, college, and married years making sure life is fair.


A better alternative: Let them complain for a little, after all everyone has a vent a little. Then steer the conversation another direction. Get them actively thinking about what they do have and can do. DON’T do it for them. Instead ask them questions. (And of course, acknowledge how they feel first.)

  • “What did you do today at school?”
  • “If you had to pick one thing you did this week that makes you happy, what would it be?”
  • “I know how you feel. It’s disappointing and not much fun to think about. What’s something that makes you happy just thinking about it?”

As they pipe in with ideas, have them elaborate (What do you mean? Tell me about.), setting mind and heart down the thank-you path and leaving the trail of complaining behind. 


Response #3 – Latch on to the complaining.

If I have one parenting regret, it’s this one. I was so intent that my son not complain I zeroed in on the wrong behavior that needed to be “fixed.” I lost sight of the positive behavior I supposedly was encouraging him to do.

I’ve since learned that I don’t have to pounce on the negative. In fact, spending too much time on negative behavior can actually reinforce it.


Words to avoid: “always” and “never,” as in “You’re never thankful.” “Why do you always complain?”

Generalizations just aren’t true. I’ll bet your son or daughter does say thank you, even if it’s not as often as you want. And sweeping statements come dangerously close to putting kids in an identity “bucket” they can’t climb out of. “Always” and “never” statements don’t just say “You’re complaining,” they communicate “You are a complainer.” Not just “You aren’t being thankful” but “You are an ungrateful person.” And there’s nothing so deflating and helpless as feeling like you are someone you don’t want to be.


A better alternative: Sometimes it’s okay to redirect negative behavior by drawing attention to something positive. Last week I got to hanging out with two preschoolers I really like. Ava was complaining on and on about how hungry she was. Evan was waiting quietly for me to get him a snack.

I decided I’d overlook Ava’s complaining. Instead I turned to Evan and said, “Thanks so much for waiting patiently for me, Evan. I really appreciate it. And you know what? I love it when you say thank you.”

Two things happened: He said thank you as soon as the goldfish hit the plate. And Ava, hungering for more than just goldfish but some praise of her own, stopped complaining and said, “Thank you!”


What are some ways you’ve found to be ineffective when dealing with complaining?

What ways have you found to be effective for encouraging thankfulness?

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