April 2008
That is better than this... or is it?

by Annie Fox, M.Ed

Finding fault with everyone and everything is… finding fault with oneself. A teen’s level of (dis)satisfaction is directly proportional to his/her own… self-worth.
Lemon Buds

Ever notice how cool lemon trees are? Born on the East Coast I never had a personal encounter with one until I reached adulthood and moved West, but now that I’ve got have a dwarf Meyer lemon in my garden, let me tell you this is one under-rated miracle of nature. Here’s a tree with teeny flower buds, heavenly smelling blossoms, baby green fruit and ripe golden orbs, all happening at the same time!

On a cosmic level, the lemon tree is always manifesting its entire life cycle. So it’s simultaneous living every moment of its existence!

Lemon Generations - Photo by David FoxNow you might assume that straddling the time space-continuum would cause internal conflict for the tree. Like maybe an undeveloped little green guy eyes a juicy yellow beauty and gripes, “Damn! How come I’m not more mature?” Or some blossom whose petals flap in the wind, whines about how unfair it is that she’s no longer taut and firm like that sweet young bud. But noooo.

This plant has evolved to a point where no phase of life is any better or worse than any other. In the realm of lemon trees, there is total acceptance. No complaints. What is, is.

Humans on the other hand are hard-wired for complaining. Even (maybe especially) those of us who have pretty soft lives compared to most people on this planet.

Since adults often judge things, situations, and other people in terms of what’s “wrong,” it’s no surprise that teens are frequently bitching about something. In addition to what we’re modeling for them, teens are incredibly judgmental because they’re grappling with some key questions: Am I normal? Am I loveable? Am I loving? Consequently, our kids feel pressured to compare themselves with everyone in the real and virtual universe to determine: Am I cool enough? Am I hot enough? Am I good enough?

Finding fault with everyone and everything is, of course, finding fault with oneself. Face it, happy campers don’t pick everything apart. A teen’s level of (dis)satisfaction is directly proportional to his/her own feelings of self-worth.

Giant Tian Tan Buddha, Hong Kong - Photo by David FoxJust so you don’t misunderstand, I’m not advocating that we all become Zen Buddhists, practice nondualism, and make damn sure that we never find fault in anything. I’m sorry, but cottage cheese that’s gone off is gag-inducing and no amount of Ohmmming is going to make me smile when I take off the lid. Practically speaking, if you find something unacceptable, just DO SOMETHING about it. Complaining is never a prerequisite for action. Nor is it a substitute.

In families, often an offending situation is due to what someone else did or failed to do. So, instead of wringing your hands and wagging your tongue, “How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your stuff? I swear, do I have to do everything around here? You kids are just impossible!” just point and say, “Those… (shoes, dirty dishes, smelly wet towels) don’t belong there. Please [insert undeniable culprit’s name here] remove them.” That’s not a complaint. That’s a simple directive. When you complain and nag less, and insert more verbs in your sentences (calls to action) you just may get more cooperation from your teens and hear less complaining from them.

Redirecting the Urge to Complain

Want to help your kids turn some of their grumbling and whining into a more accepting attitude? Want to help build resilience so that when life knocks them down, they’ve got more of what it takes to get up and come back? Here’s a plan:

  1. Call a family meeting – For a productive discussion (the only kind worth having) lay down the rules
  2. What is the goal? Talk about day-to-day situations that family members are in the habit of complaining about. Limit the discussion to situations and personal responses to those situations. What isn’t the goal? Homework frustrationsThis is not a Let’s-Dump-on-Each-Other fest. Avoid talking about other people’s behavior.
  3. Give examples. Have everyone name a situation that they complained about recently. “We’re out of toothpaste!” “I can’t find my phone!!” “This English assignment sucks.” If someone starts complaining about something a family member did or failed to do, stop and re-direct the discussion to a situation.
  4. Be inclusive. Talk about the complaining habit that everyone in the family has gotten into, because all of us really do it a lot.
  5. Brainstorm. Why is complaining a drain on the family? In case you’re stuck, here are some ideas: it changes nothing; it’s no fun to be around; it’s self-defeating because you start expecting ‘set-backs;’ when complaining gets a lot of attention, the complainer may get into the habit of looking for things to complain about!
  6. What to do instead? Communicate directly about what needs to be done instead of complaining about someone or something. Do what needs to be done (on your own) instead of complaining. Change what you can change, and change your attitude about the rest.
  7. Create a complaint catching challenge. Assuming everyone wants less complaining/nagging in the home, challenge the family to catch themselves (not anyone else) in the act of complaining.
  8. Report back in a week. Have another meeting and talk about the progress the whole family has made in creating a more positive atmosphere.

Just to let you know, two days ago I picked all the ripe lemons from the tree and made lemon marmalade. Not to complain or anything, but I misread the recipe and the results were… uh… interesting. Fortunately the tree’s still got plenty of green babies, so next month I’ll take another shot at it.

In friendship,

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