How (Not) to Manage Your Kid’s Complaining

When I was twelve years old my parents told me that I needed to get a job and start paying my own way. This was their response to my wishes for nicer clothes, a newer bike and a family vacation involving boats. You’ll get those things, they told me, by working for them. They even found me my first job: cooking, cleaning and changing diapers.

We are doing this for your own good.

Like many kids, my first job was babysitting. I earned a little at a time and learned–a lot. By babysitting every day after school, I earned enough money that by the time I was sixteen I bought a sound system for my room, a sewing machine to make those nicer clothes, a newer bike to get to my jobs, and eventually a used convertible that ran some of the time. I also learned about time management and time out, and how to save money.

When I was fifteen, I even got the first of several family vacations involving boats, by being a nanny for families who had them. The first time this happened the family vacation lasted for a whole summer. I was not enthusiastic about this. Remember I wanted a vacation, not a six-and-a-half day work week. It turned out that I also learned about resentment, because I had a lot.

I wrote letters home, sent by snail mail from various ports-of-call. It probably seemed glamorous, but it was real work: housework, food and bathroom messes, child supervision, every day. I felt terribly homesick, but I could not return home until the end of the summer. My parents found a pleasant irony in my letters about one of the kids in my care: the complaining twelve-year-old girl who never had what she wanted!

You should appreciate this opportunity we found for you.

Do you think this was a harsh way to teach life lessons to a teenager? At the time I certainly did! I lacked any perspective about how my “earning and learning” was either good for me or an “opportunity”. That’s because (1) I felt that I had no choice in the matter and (2) I could not separate my “opportunities” from the benefits my time away provided my beleaguered parents, and by their own admission (money saved, fewer mouths to feed, less laundry, fewer complaints, etc…). 

Learning to Drive (Yourself)

As we grow up, it’s important that we learn to “drive” ourselves. Otherwise we treat “work” as an imposition, whether you are the kids or the parents. When your parenting solutions to kid problems, whether for school, social or family challenges are really about your needs, it invariably breeds resentment. This is the firm foundation of complaining and pushback. 

The antidote to pushback is called Self-determination. It has three parts: C + A + R ,an easy to remember acronym, conveniently related to driving.

Competence: Skills and abilities needed to accomplish tasks

Autonomy: Voice and choice about tasks and life direction

Relatedness: Respectful, positive connections with others

Together these lead to:

Self-determination: Working independently and purposefully, without being compelled by others; being a self-advocate rather than an avoider

Today I work with parents and their kids. The kids are struggling with tasks that seem easy for other smart people, potentially jeopardizing school and work goals. They can seem better at avoidance, pushback and meltdowns than at learning and homework. 

The parents have already tried many solutions before they get to me, and this often means they are feeling anxious and even desperate while challenged to commit to yet another expense of their time and money.  Parents think that “sharing” the sacrifices they are making will convert their kids into efficient workers who get into good colleges and land good jobs. Instead, they are taking away their child’s perception of choice. Instead of generosity these parents are broadcasting guilt: Never forget my sacrifice.

Remember that my parents sent me to work (ostensibly) because I wanted the things that money could buy. They wanted me to understand how hard they worked for the things I did have, so that I would be grateful, work hard, and stop complaining. 

Your kids might also be spending the money you wish could go to your own family vacation with boats. But if you think telling them about your sacrifices will make them swell with gratitude and become miraculously cured of their pushback, you are headed for the gale-force winds and high seas of disappointment. 

Autonomy (the perception of having at least some choice and voice in decisions that affect them), and Relatedness (the belief that someone genuinely cares about you, without expectation) are essential for your kid to receive potentially well-intentioned offerings and intervention without resentment. 

What can you do?

Whenever possible, prevent power struggles. Check in with your emotional self. Are you acting out of fear for your child’s future? Anger that parenting is requiring sacrifices you didn’t expect to make? Resist, resist, resist the urge to blame your child for your own emotional discomfort.  

What can you say?

-I can’t make it easy but I can help to make things possible.

-I am here to listen to you and I trust you can work things out.

-Your learning success is important to me. I am in this with you for the long haul.

No matter how much misery their pushback may cause you, don’t guilt your kids with how much time, money and even sleep you have lost trying to help them. Instead be grateful yourself that you have the resources to help, compassion to care, and patience to see things through to success.

 

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