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June 5, 2009

Leading in a Complaining Culture

One of the most taxing things one encounters when mothering a three-year old boy is the whining: the use of an annoyingly complaining voice. One would think - and many experts assert - that if a child is never given the item for which he whines and is always required to rephrase his request politely, the behavior would eventually be extinguished. But no such luck in our household. Our myriad anti-whining strategies have met with no real success to date.

In a recent chat with a close mom friend about parenting our preschoolers, I raised our whining dilemma. What else could I try to stop it? Was there no solution (and if not, could my sanity be preserved)? After listening for a while my friend gently - and correctly - pointed out that I was, in essence, whining about my son's whining problem.

Complaining, in essence, is saying: "This isn't working out for me. I'm annoyed that I don't have - or am not getting - what I want right now." It's what my kid‘s doing when he asks for a drink in an unhappy voice. And it's what I'm doing when I'm telling my friend that ongoing effort to address this parenting challenge is killing me.

If ever there was a culture of complainers, our society is it. Here we are: world's richest nation, where instant gratification is the daily norm for most everyone in most realms of life. But we're eternally unhappy. We always want more, different, better… and we're not afraid to say so.

Now don't get me wrong. Sharing our burdens with one another isn't sinful but actually godly, and it's wise to seek advice from Christian peers and mentors about challenging situations. But the line between constructive problem-solving and complaining is terribly thin. I'm more apt to be on the complaining side than on the constructive side - and I find myself in good company.

Whining, rooted in our sin nature, is part of the "old self" we're commanded to "put off" (Eph 4:22). The original sin consisted of Eve doing exactly what my son does routinely: voicing dissatisfaction about the snack options God has provided to her. She wanted a different one. She and Adam were discontent with what they'd been given, said so, and then acted on it.

This is the essence of complaining: dissatisfaction. Lack of contentment. A joyless and unthankful heart. These were present when our first parents sinned, are present in my three-year old, and are also present in me.

It can be hardest to see among us leaders. As a mom it's appropriate for me to brainstorm solutions to my kids' developmental issues as part of godly childrearing; likewise it's appropriate for me as a leader to brainstorm how best to address challenges being faced by or among those I lead. We get into problem-solving mode. The difficulty is that this same mode is where a complaining spirit and unthankful heart often take root. Where sin disguises itself in the garb of diligent leadership activities, it can burrow deep and prove highly destructive.

Few commandments are more straightforward than the antidote to whining, found in one of the Bible's shortest verses: "Be joyful always" (1 Thess 5:16). Paul tells his readers quite simply to choose joy. This - contrary to how we feel when we find ourselves in a unsatisfactory situation - is actually in our power through the work of the Holy Spirit in us. We can shun dissatisfaction. We can give thanks instead of whine. We can turn from discontentment to contentment. Revolutionary - but true.

Our culture models this very seldom. After all, the whole purpose of marketing in our consumerist society is to elicit and amplify discontent and complaining spirits within us. A whining mindset is absolutely pervasive in America today. Unless we combat it with every tool that God give us, it will triumph in each of us… corroding our souls and damaging our leadership influence.

And so we - as mothers, leaders, workers, consumers - must cultivate thankfulness in all things. We must learn to resist the temptation to complain and seek joy through Christ in each wakeful moment. May God use our example, perhaps even more than our instruction, to inspire those around us to live thankful rather than whine-ful lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.


I suppose it's true that we live in a complaining culture and that all of us could live with a less selfish perspective on the minor irritations of our lives.

But one of the things that makes me the most thankful is that I have good friends who listen to me whine and love me anyway. I find that when my friends empathize with (and not criticize) my feelings, no matter how ignoble those feelings may seem, I'm more easily able to find a better attitude.

I have Christian friends who always seem to be challenging me to be someone better than who I am, and other Christian friends who always seem to love me just the way I am. The funny thing is that I find myself growing into a more mature person because of the love of my accepting friends. My "challenging" friends just make me feel like I'll never measure up to their standards.

The truth is that some days I'm just tired. And like a tired three-year-old, I whine. What I'm most thankful for on those days is an understanding hug and a nap. And when I wake up, I have more energy to try to choose joy.


Thanks for the comment - a great contribution to these thoughts. Tiredness definitely does contribute to a complaning tendency and to difficulty in choosing joy. And I completely agree with you on the value of patient friends who love and accept unconditionally and offer empathy in every circumstance. Fortunately I am very blessed to have friends like this as well (including the friend who helped me make the link between whining and complaining, more broadly... I wrote more about her specifically and the affirming value of this friendship to me here:

The friends who bless me most are those who are able to somehow combine the two 'tones' you menion - thos who 1) love me as I am, and 2) challenge me to be more [and in that order]. In a way that mirrors God's unconditional love and acceptance - accompanied by a spurring on to growing godliness. These friends are to me truly the 'iron sharpens iron' blessing that the Bible speaks of...

It's a gift from God when one is able to speak into others' lives with wisdom and an affirming spirit so that it comes across as upbuilding and not discouraging, in a 'never measure up to the right standards' tone. This is a gift my friend (in this incident) has and one I pray that God will also give me in increasing measure!

It has become palpable to me in our affluent geographic area how insidious negativity is. I perceive a relationship between the ease of acquisition of material goods and the constant desire, if not demand and expectation, for comfort. I listen to moms criticize and I witness how the adage "Misery loves company" is valid. I also witness this behavior most frequently amongst adolescents. It seems that to criticize gives the ranter authority over the circumstance, situation, or person being criticized. It actually seems more "cool" to buck something than to praise it. Although I cannot explain exactly why this is, I personally find wan criticism empty and petty. I recall a surprising scene from the Hollywood movie, "Shallow Hal" in which Hal can only see people for their inner beauty, which distorts people's physical appearance: an obese woman with a gentle, kind heart is the most beautiful woman to him, while, in a scene in which a model with deceptive motives speaks with him, the audience sees, from Hal's perspective, a hideous being. Has anyone ever heard of the pastor who had plastic bracelets made for the congregation? The pastor challenged the congregation to go thirty days without complaining. Each time a person caught themselves complaining they had to turn the bracelet inside out as a reminder. Needless to say, the congregation became intensely sensitized to how much whining was in their midst!

I really appreciate this post as well as your reflection on the valuable friend that was willing to speak truth into your reality. I find the authenticity demonstrated by your friend to be a rare virtue in our culture. Thank you for a reminder that we are tempted to be consumers on both physical and spiritual realms. By focusing on joy in our relationships, we demonstrating a form of "sustainable spiritual living" and giving back to a world we so often take for granted.

Thanks Susan,
We've just been talking about these kinds of toddler whining/discipline issues with the women in our small group. It's good to remember and keep perspective about how God views our own reaction to these things in our children. We still talk about one of your previous posts about using Bible verses as responses to our kids when they face adversity (even if it's wanting something they can't have). I'll share this with them, thank you!

Thanks for the article. I'm on a school board and have watched with aggravation as grumbling board members destroyed a government entity. Your article, however, God refocused me on MY proclivity to dissatisfaction. Ouch - you were used by God as a paddle, but nonetheless used by God.

I don't know. I see complaining and whining as totally different things. Isn't it healthy to voice a complaint. For instance, if no one ever complained back in the days of American slavery, I would be a slave right now and not a free woman. Sorry, but working in some field or kitchen or getting raped so a white woman won't get her hands dirty or have to endure certain things is not my idea of a life worth living much less one meant by God. Sorry to be blunt. Like wise, if no one ever complained about women being deemed to stay in their places, none of us would be out in the working world leaving our marks on society now. What about the current states of women globally. Someone better complain about child pornography, forced prostitution, and still today slavery, etc., etc.

Thus, I think it depends on whether or not your complaint is one you're willing to take action to correct or if you're complaining just to be complaining--spoiled.

See, to me, self-pitying is whining. That's why children can be accused of whining. They are reliant on adults in their lives to meet their needs. They can't do for themselves and thus what else can they do but try to gain pity to get what they want. That or become angry. In either case that is what proper training is for. You just have to be patient until they grow and sometimes this is the case for many adult whiners too.

Susan, Thank you for a beautiful and thoughtful article. Since becoming a mother, I too have noticed the complaining syndrome in myself and other mothers. It seems to me this is another attack by God's biggest enemy on the family. I often fail to praise and compliment my children with other moms and even with my spouse. I know this can divide the family. God created the family and because of this it is a divine institution, even the foundation of society. I must show God my gratitude by speaking with respect, always, about the family God gave me.

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