Ever have one of those days when your 4-year-old whines and complains one too many times, and you think maybe you’ve totally failed and your kid is 100% spoiled? Me too. That’s why I started diving into ways to teach gratitude for kids.

Your little angel turning into a complaint-filled whine monster is such a typical phase. But I also wanted to start thinking about how to introduce gratitude for kids so that the complaining phase is just that… a phase.

The truth is that I have an incredible kid. She’s the sweetest, boldest, bravest, and most independent little girl. I love her more than words could ever say. Though there are those days, like when we went to Disney World and instead of just appreciating the experience, she complained… a lot.

Unfortunately, all the approaches I’ve tried so far haven’t really been home runs. Which means, research time! So let’s look first at why kids complain, whine, and act totally UNgrateful to start with, then tackle how to introduce gratitude for kids.

Why do kids whine in the first place?

Kids whine to get something they want for the most part.

The most recent example in my life is my daughter whining because she didn’t want to go on a walk. We go on family walks almost every day, but of course, my 4-year-old would rather spend that time watching her favorite Netflix show of the week. So she complains and whines.

She hopes by whining enough I’ll give in and we will skip our walk. So first, she is trying to get the outcome she wants. But I also think kids get something else from complaining when they are not able to actually influence the outcome of what is going on.

Think about it even from an adult perspective. How often do you call up a friend and just vent about something that is bothering you? How often do you let out a little scream in the car when you’re stuck in traffic or someone cuts you off?

We as adults complain all the time about things that don’t go our way. It’s how we let off a little pressure and get out our feelings about the situation.

I think kids do the same.

Kids don’t have much control over their lives. We control their lives, and even parents who foster the greatest independence possible for their children still have to make decisions for them that they won’t agree with sometimes.

Complaining is them voicing their opinion.

Personally, I do my best not to stifle my daughter voicing her opinion, even if it grates my last nerve. But there are a few things I’ve tried, some worked and some have not.

1. Validating feelings

I don’t tell my daughter to stop talking, not express her feelings, or stop complaining. Instead, I try to just validate that I’ve heard her complaint and it’s been registered.

I say something like, “I hear you are upset because we are going for a walk.”

Sometimes just my acknowledgment of her feeling is enough to nip the complaining in the bud.

2. Don’t give into them

The one thing sited as being important in all the sources I read was to not give in to the complaining, which is soooo hard. Those whines just drive you over the edge to the point you just want it to stop… and in desperation you cave into their demands.

But if at all possible. Don’t.

Giving into complaining when there is no good reason except because they complain just fosters more complaining.

This is not to say you should be mean, ignore them, or chastize them harshly. You can be compassionate while also holding a firm boundary by offering hugs, or just letting them know you hear they are upset. (Like in #1 above.)

3. Comparison doesn’t work

I’ve tried the whole… “there’s kids who are starving and would love to eat your broccoli routine.” That one is an epic failure and really does not work in my experience.

Isn’t this the trick every single TV mom tried? And when we were kids we rolled our eyes so hard at at it… as if she was going to box up the leftovers and send it to a hungry kid somewhere.

While it is important to teach our children to help those in need, making comparisons to others in the heat of the moment just doesn’t really work, especially with little kids. It just ends up kind of shaming them.

4. Switch the conversation

Two things I have done that cut the complaining off almost immediately are to both ways that I use to change the conversations.

The first is to make a joke. A silly face, a fart noise, a peekabo. Anything that lightens the mood usually helps to redirect my child’s feelings into something more positive.

The second is to validate her feelings and move right into gratitude. So it goes something like this:

“I hear you saying you don’t want to walk. It is really hot out here and we’ve walked a lot, but we need to walk to get to the place we are going. But you know what? I had so much fun today with you at the zoo! What did you like about today?”

One day at Disney World after lots of typical child complaints I realized that I couldn’t combat her negative attitude with more negativity from me. I had to shift gears and change up the energy. So I just decided trying to change the subject to a positive note would be better than this cycle of whining.

And it works! This is when I realized that instead of trying to lecture her about why she should feel gratitude, I instead wanted to help point out to her when she is already feeling grateful for something.

Through my intensive Googling, I found experts mostly agree on gratitude for kids and how to cultivate it.

Turning whines into thanks

One thing I do NOT want is to drill gratitude into my child as something that necessary but doesn’t have the true feelings of gratitude connected to it. For example, just saying please and thank you without knowing the why or actually feeling grateful.

Instead, my goal is to teach my children to have a true appreciation for themselves, their family, and all the things in their world.

Having manners isn’t the same thing has having gratitude.

When I came across this article it all made so much sense to me.

The Raising Grateful Children project at UNC Chapel Hill has found that parents who focus on four key areas when teaching their children gratitude have the most success. Gratitude for kids can be much more encompassing than how parents currently approach it.

In their research, they have narrowed the areas to focus on to (direct quote below):

  • What we NOTICE in our lives for which we can be grateful
  • How we THINK about why we have been given those things
  • How we FEEL about the things we have been given
  • What we DO to express appreciation in turn

The article notes that most parents’ biggest priority is what children DO to express gratitude. It’s very external vs. the first three on the list (notice, think, feel), which are internal. The first three are about what is going on inside the child and how they are reacting to gratitude.

That’s not to say teaching your children what to DO, and appropriate ways to express gratitude. Rather, “These findings suggest that there are opportunities for fostering gratitude in children that many parents have yet to tap.”

For me, this is a reason to not so much turn off the complaining from our children, but to just help them get more in touch with what they are feeling and why when they are complaining. Then use those same techniques for teaching them about gratitude.

One thing I learned through therapy is that you can’t turn off just some emotions. If you want to stop feeling sad, that then inhibits your ability to feel joy. Living life is about learning to feel the full spectrum of emotions.

The same can be said for helping children explore the feelings that lead to them complaining, AND how to cultivate a deep sense of gratitude.

They are two ends of the same stick, and unless you drop the stick completely, you’ll need to address both, in my personal mom opinion.

Teach gratitude for kids takes patience. Just like all aspects of parenting. But it’s also an opportunity to learn some gratitude yourself. Gratitude for the opportunity to be your little one’s guide to living a happy life.

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