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“You Owe Me a Wonderful”

A magic trick for turning whines, sulks, complaints, and criticisms into smiles.

There is no quicker way a child can ruin a moment than a complaint:

  • “Roxy got the biggest cookie!”
  • “I am NOT going to the store with you!”
  • “You never let me do anything I want to do!”
  • “I’ll never be able to play soccer!”

Negativity corrodes family life, but it isn’t a problem only at home. Not surprisingly, negative people don’t do as well at work or in relationships as those who are more optimistic, positive, and pleasant to spend time with. Nobody enjoys spending time with a child or adult who whines, sulks, complains, and criticizes.

Thankfully, there is a bright side to all this. Negativity is a habit of mind, and like all habits, it can be changed. Even the grumpiest child can be reprogrammed into someone with attitudes that others—including their families—enjoy. One of the approaches that has received research support in recent years focuses on helping kids move from a sense of entitlement to one of gratitude.

I’ve been using that approach—encouraging a move from entitlement that shows up as negativity, toward an attitude of gratitude—with some of the children in my life, and have happened upon a technique that seems magical.

When a child is negative and there isn’t a serious problem behind it (like illness, lack of attention, a real situation that requires action), I acknowledge the problem, then point out what is wonderful about the current situation. So far in my personal experiment with this, I can always find something wonderful:

  • “Yes, maybe Roxy’s cookie is a bit bigger than yours, but isn’t it wonderful you are having a cookie?”
  • ­­­­"Yes, you’d rather keep playing than go to the grocery store right now, but isn’t it wonderful your family can afford to buy groceries?”
  • “Yes, I know you are angry about going to bed and not being able to go to the park right now, but isn’t it wonderful you have someone who cares about you and wants you to be strong and healthy? Isn’t it wonderful you’ll probably be able to go to the park tomorrow?”
  • “Yes, you’re not as good at soccer as some of the other kids, but isn’t it wonderful you know how to work hard and practice, so you can get better at soccer?”

Once we’ve had a few examples of me affirming the child's problem and pointing out something wonderful about the child’s current situation, it becomes quite easy to support the changing habit. Every time there is a petty whine, sulk, complaint, or criticism, I look the child in the eye, smile, and say, “I think you owe me a wonderful.”

The child’s initial response might be a grudging acknowledgement of the good side of the situation, but before too long, it turns into a game. Instead of dreading a complaint, I find myself looking forward to the next instance of churlishness, so I can say, “You owe me a wonderful.” I’ve gotten to the point with one of my grandchildren where all I have to do when he complains is look at him and smile quizzically, with eyebrows raised. Most of the time, he’ll give me a half-smile or a nod, then say something positive about the situation. I can see and feel his mood—and mine—changing from grumpy self-pity to easy cheerfulness. Magic.

One of the corollary benefits of this approach: changing your child’s habits of mind from negativity to positivity is bound to have an effect on everyone else in the family, including yourself. The child is not the only family member who will benefit from acquiring more positive habits of mind.

Some caveats:

  1. This approach is only for trivial whines, complaints, and criticisms, the irritability that can so easily become a negative habit of mind. It will only work if your child trusts you to take seriously any genuine problems they have.
  2. It is effective only if you have an easy, supportive, and accepting relationship with your child, If that’s not the case, start by working on that before you try to do anything with their attitude.
  3. Learn to find your own wonderfuls before you share this technique with your child. This technique can't work if you’re frequently grouchy or irritable yourself.
  4. This attitude reshaping is NOT for serious issues like anxiety or depression. If the trick has no magic, and your child continues to be negative, AND the problem isn't your own negativity, it may be time to seek professional help.

For More on This Topic

Positive Thinking: How to Foster in Your Child ,” by SickKids Hospital Staff

7 Activities to Help Your Child Develop a Positive Attitude, ” by Ashley Cullins

The Benefits of Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude ,” by Dan Mager

Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking , by Tamar Chansky

How to Help the Negative or Pessimistic Child ,” by Melbourne Child Psychology and School Psychology Services

10 Tips to Help Your Child with Anger ,” by Laura Markham

Too Busy to Play ?” by Dona Matthews