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How to Teach Your Kid to Complain Without Being Annoying

The problem isn't that kids whine. It's that they're bad at it.

Adults have built billion-dollar companies on the back of complaints. Think about Yelp. Consider Twitter. Remember Reddit. For kids, though, it’s different. Kid complaints don’t represent a market opportunity. They represent an annoyance to parents — and that’s often true even when the complaints are legitimate. For kids, the barrier to having concerns heard is high. This is because they are taught not to complain instead of being taught to complain in ways that are useful or likely to affect change.

“Between 6 and 14 kids can really begin to understand that their perspective is different from another person’s,” explains Steve Silvestro, pediatrician, and host of the Child Repair Guide podcast. But, he adds, helping a kid build emotional intelligence is a good place to start. That requires recognizing emotions, understanding their cause, and labeling and expressing them appropriately. “You see some adults that can’t fully complete that spectrum. So some of it doesn’t even have to do with age.”

Once kids make the leap — and it’s a big one — to having theory of mind and being able to empathize with or understand the perspectives of others, the next step on the way to learning to complain effectively is understanding which complaints will be heard. This is hard for kids because they are, as Silvestro puts it, “very Zen but in a negative way.”

“You certainly hear kids say the phrase, ‘That’s not fair!’” laughs Silvestro. “They’re all about what they’re thinking, feeling and doing, now in this moment. And whatever isn’t that is the worst idea ever.”

Happily, parents can start teaching kids to parse the unfairness before they are prepared to see the world from a different angle. “I encourage parents, even at 15-months to say to their kid having a tantrum, ‘Are you sad?’ or ‘Are you mad?’” says Silvestro. “You’re already getting your kid to try and communicate what they’re feeling.”

Once a kid can express their feelings, they are are in a position to explain how they are being affected negatively by the decisions or behavior of others. The conversation switches from being about fairness to being about specific points of friction. Once that happens, kids are more likely to discover the spots where they can get traction — largely through trial and error, but still.

How to Teach a Kid to Complain the Right Way

  • Start as early as 15 months, building emotional intelligence by helping children name their emotions.
  • Help kids develop the appropriate complaint tone by practicing simulated complaints through role-playing.
  • Get the family involved at family meetings to help a child understand the importance of brainstorming solutions and complaint methods.
  • Direct children who can write (around 6 or 7 years old) to submit their complaints in writing in order to distance them from emotions and build arguments.

Another key in an ideal complaint is tone. This is another place where kids run into trouble, particularly when their default is whining. Silvestro notes that parents can help this situation by practicing how to complain with kids. That practice is essentially a simulation of a complaint and helps a child develop the tools they need to complain effectively with an appropriately emotional voice and compliant structure.

A good place for this complaint trouble-shooting and practice is the good old fashioned family meeting. “Together, brainstorm how you might go about communicating that issue and maybe also brainstorm solutions,” Silvestro says.

It may sound business-like, but that’s not a bad thing. Business should be relatively drama free, as should complaints, which plays into Silvestros’ final pointer: kids who can write should submit their complaint in written form. “Tell them to go to their room and write down their reasons for why this is a problem,” he suggests. This helps them distance themselves from the immediate emotions connected to lack of fairness. “You’re also teaching them how to build an argument.”

Bonus? No whining. Which is more than you can say for the bulk of people on Yelp.