It seemed like a good idea when my husband and I decided to challenge our family to try to go a year without grumbling. The why was easy: Grumbling hurts relationships. Grumbling hurts our hearts. Grumbling rejects God’s goodness.
The problem was that the kids could easily see each other’s grumbling problems, but they had a harder time seeing their own struggles. This was especially true when their grumbling went beyond words.
“Grumbling isn’t just muttering and complaining,” I explained one day at the beginning of our year. “It can also be rolling your eyes and giving heavy sighs.”
My teen daughter, Maddie, laughed. “I do that.”
I winked at her. “Yes, and you’re not the only one.”
I suggested we look at the issue another way. “What are some things we’re prone to do when we’re unhappy?” I asked.
I wrote out the words as my children called them out: whining, eye-rolling, mumbling, complaining, criticizing. Looking at the list, we realized that each of us had our own “go-to” way of grumbling.
Why we grumble
After discovering our personal grumbling styles, the first step in helping my kids to combat their own grumbling was to help them understand where their grumbling came from.
Grumbling usually happens when we expect something to go a certain way, and it doesn’t. Kids can grumble when they expect to have more video game time, but instead they are reminded about chores. They may grumble when their evening is occupied with a difficult homework assignment, or when they don’t get invited to a social event.
We expect one thing and get the opposite. Then we let everyone know how unhappy we are about it. Unfortunately, these small grumbles can build into large resentments and hurt relationships.
Next time you witness your kids grumbling, ask them what their expectation was and whether it was realistic. Most of the time it wasn’t. I’m also learning to work on my own responses when the unexpected happens, even as I try to teach my kids to do the same.
When we want help or feel like the world is stacked against us, we may grumble or complain to get others to do what we want. Playing the victim often causes others to jump to action. This is a bad trap to fall into.
Instead of acting like a victim and grumbling about how hard life is, kids can learn how to politely ask for help. Communicating needs cuts down on grumbles. So when I hear my children grumbling, I say, “Are you trying to ask me for help?” This lets my children know I see their needs, but I expect them to try to get help in a different way than complaining.
A lot of discontent happens at our work, in our homes and in our lives in general. And now, with social media, we share our discontent to anyone paying attention. To make matters worse, our followers even applaud our unhappiness and dissatisfaction as we “keep it real.”
Yet when we come down to it, our grumbling is telling God, “What You’re doing isn’t enough.” We may try to gain attention or sympathy, but our words are always a reflection of our hearts. And sadly, they’re also a reflection of our trust in God — which leads to the second step of training my kids: helping them see how seriously God takes their complaining.
Grumbling dishonors God
Sometimes we grumble because we think it’s no big deal. Yet the Bible refers to grumbling as “faithless complaining.” Both the Old and New Testaments rebuked grumbling, but in Numbers 14:26-30, God shares how truly serious grumbling was to Him. Because of the Israelites grumbling under Moses, they were not allowed to enter the Promised Land. God actually called them a “wicked” community, because He saw what was in their hearts.
Every day we need to pray for God to change us on the inside. God wants us to look to Him with thankfulness for what He’s done for us and what He’s provided, instead of complaining when things don’t work out as we’d hoped. And this is something that must be learned. No one, after all, is naturally thankful.
Grumbling or gratitude
How do we get our children to stop grumbling? Teach them how to be grateful.
Start a gratitude jar
The first idea I had was to create a gratitude jar.Every time kids grumbled, they had to write something they were thankful for and put it in the jar. But when my kids were in a grumbly mood, forcing them to be thankful just didn’t work.
I figured this out when my teen daughter was annoyed that she had to clean her room. She talked back so many times that she had to put nine slips of paper into the jar. And she still grumbled as she wrote down those nine things she was “thankful” for.
I looked at the jar and those little pieces of paper and knew it was impossible to force someone to be grateful. Sure, she complied, but only outwardly. There was no true gratitude in her heart.
Here’s a better way to use a gratitude jar: Encourage your kids to write notes of gratitude when they are already feeling grateful. Jot down your thankfulness on a piece of paper, and then add it to the jar. The slips of papers then become reminders of life’s blessings. We’ve discovered, as a family, that this works much better.
Gratefulness is evidence of God working within our souls. Taking note of our gratitude reminds our kids that when we are grateful, there’s someone we need to thank: God.
Make gratitude a big deal
Lips that are quick to praise instead of grumble do not appear overnight. So the best way to reinforce gratitude is to catch it when it happens. When you catch one of your kids showing gratitude, praise his or her grateful attitude. The more you do this, the more your children will learn to be thankful.
Also, thank your kids for the things they do, but thank God (over and over again) for who your kids are becoming — and let them hear you. Use kind and thankful words often. If gratitude is a heart issue, we need to speak to our kids’ hearts.
As much as I didn’t want to believe it, when it comes to teaching my kids not to grumble — and to be grateful instead — my ability to practice what I preach is the biggest factor. When I model being grateful, it’s teaching my kids how to do it.
When I catch myself in a grumbly mood, I’m learning to let go of the expectation that life will be easy and comfortable and that everyone will just go along with my plan. And instead I am trusting that what I have now is exactly what God wants me to have. I thank Him in the moment.
Just as we can grumble with words or with an eye-roll, we can be grateful with a whisper of thanks and a smile. When it comes down to it, I want my family to be known more for our gratitude styles than our grumbling styles. And even though it takes daily work, our year of gratitude changed us for the better.