training-color-retOne of the problems with children is they say exactly what they’re thinking. Early in parenting, this is delightful. We’ve been waiting two years for our kids to talk, and their ability to string words together at all is somewhat of a miracle. We eagerly affirm even the most mundane content, creating entire conversations out of obvious statements.

“Bird go!”

“Yes, the bird did leave the fence and fly away. I wonder where it’s going? Maybe to feed the baby birds!”

As time moves on, though, innocuous statements about birds, trucks and bodily functions are replaced by opinions. The child who used to point out, “Peas green,” now needs to tell us exactly why she doesn’t like peas. The triumphant exclamation of, “Boots! Jacket! Mittens!” is replaced by, “Don’t wanna wear boots!”

Before I became a parent, I was a middle school teacher. At the time, I was struck by how easily I could divide the class into the complainers and the non-complainers. For the complainers, everything was a trial. The homework load was too heavy; the gym teams were unfair; it was too cold at recess. I watched, amazed, as many of these kids even complained about treats and privileges – they didn’t get a second brownie; the upcoming field trip wouldn’t be fun; the movie chosen wasn’t what they wanted. Yet, in the same classroom would be other kids who rarely, if ever, complained. They approached homework matter-of-factly; they were grateful for treats; they took disappointment in stride.

While my job as a teacher was to make sure all the children in my class received an education, looking back, I can say that some kids were a pleasure to teach, while others were a pain. Perhaps more importantly, though, I noticed that the kids who didn’t complain weren’t just holding back their negative comments; these kids were truly more content and more optimistic. They tended to be more focused and more successful.

As a young middle school teacher, I decided that if I would ever be fortunate enough to be a mother some day, I would want my children to be non-complainers.

I have come to believe that gratefulness and non-complaining must be taught by parents, just as surely as potty training and the alphabet must be taught. While some children might be naturally grateful and non-complaining, they are rare – as rare as kids who teach themselves to read and potty train themselves in a day or two.

While this might sound discouraging, really it’s not, because just as most kids can learn to read or use the bathroom, so they can learn gratefulness. But it takes some work.

One of the best phrases I stumbled upon a few years ago is, “What I think you mean to say is…”  I’m not sure which child of mine rolled his eyes upon seeing the bowl of green beans on the dinner table, and had a disparaging remark about them. Annoyed with his lack of gratitude, I spoke without thinking.

“What I think you mean to say, is, ‘Thanks, Mom,, for making dinner,’” I said to him. He looked at me quizzically, but didn’t say anything more.

From that dinner on, “What I think you mean to say…”  has occupied a regular place in our family lexicon. While Bill and I don’t use it as a response to questions and complaints that have some legitimacy, it’s the perfect response to sassing back, whining and general complaining when there’s nothing about which to complain. Overall, it works. The phrase has the ability to stop the complaint, while reframing the situation within the context of respect or gratefulness.

“I wanna watch another show!”

“What I think you mean to say is, ‘Thanks, Mom, for letting me watch TV.’”

“I didn’t mess up the basement.”

“I think what you mean to say is, ‘OK, Dad, I’ll clean up the basement.’”

What I notice, having used the phrase for a number of years, is that often the kids actually repeat what I say, even though I don’t necessarily tell them they have to. It’s almost like they’re glad someone told them the words; glad someone gave them the script. Whether they can articulate it or not, they’re relieved to have a positive alternative for the negative comment that they automatically spoke.

Slowly, I have seen gratefulness become more of a habit for each of my children. As they have learned the words to say, they have started to say them more on their own, without reminders from me.

“Thanks, Mom, for making dinner,” Jacob said gamely to me the other night, when he noticed his not-so-favorite dish on the table. I raised my eyebrows and we both smiled.

And the lesson is not just for the children. After coming home from book club one evening, I commented to my husband on the few still unwashed dishes remaining on the kitchen counter.

“I think what you mean to say,” Bill said to me, “ is, ‘Thanks for cleaning so much of the kitchen and putting the kids to bed so I could go to book club.’”

Ouch. Thanks indeed. We all need reminders every so often.

(Scobey-Polacheck, her husband Bill and their children, belong to St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Milwaukee and St. Monica Parish, Whitefish Bay. Her book, “Discovering Motherhood,” a compilation of her columns, is available at local bookstores or online.)