ASK EMORY: If not complaining, then what?


Dear Emory,

Last month you answered my letter about my cranky family. I told you about the mean teasing and angry fights between me and my kids and my partner. Your advice was to temporarily quiet my complaints, and give my family a kind of “vacation” from criticism.

Frankly, I thought your idea was crazy. But I was desperate, so I gritted my teeth and gave it a try.

It took a few days to see a change, but it really did happen. The atmosphere in our house relaxed and became nicer. My kids stopped winding each other up so much. I thought I would hate biting my tongue and not saying a word when I saw things I didn’t like. But the “vacation” helped me relax, as well. And that helped me and my partner get along better, too.

But, you left out another important part of this. If I don’t complain or criticize when I see something wrong—then what? How do I point out my kids’ mistakes and what do I say when they are doing something that is not okay?

Befuddled on Franklin

Dear Befuddled,

Wow, what an accomplishment! It’s not easy to go cold-turkey and stop complaining and criticizing. I’m so glad that you gave this a try, and I can see that your family appreciated it, too.

And yes, you raise a good question, Befuddled. Once you give up complaining and criticizing, then what? How do you help your kids notice their mistakes and learn to do better? How can you talk with your partner when things seem to be going wrong, so that you can make them right again?

Even when we feel upset or angry about something someone is doing or not-doing, it’s possible to draw attention to the problem without it making anyone upset or angry. Here are some suggestions about to do this:

When you see something wrong, focus on the problem (not the person) with just a few words:

“Madeline, I see your backpack on the floor.” (Instead of complaining, “Madeline! You forgot your backpack!”)

“Luis, the dog is hungry and waiting for you to feed him.” (Instead of criticizing, “Luis! You forgot again to feed the dog!”)

“Sophia, gymnastics class is over and we need to go.” (Instead of complaining, “Sophia! I’m tired of waiting for you, hurry up!”)

Kids respond so much better when our words focus on the task at hand, instead of focusing on their faults and shortcomings. Then, if your child complains or delays, you can still avoid getting mad. Simply say what you are going to do or not do, instead of telling the child what he or she has to do.

“I’m willing to get the Legos out when your backpack is put away. I’m not willing to get them until this is done”

“I’m willing to serve dinner to our family after you feed the dog. It’s not fair for us to eat our dinner if Barkley doesn’t get his dinner.”

“I’m going to wait for you outside, Sophia. I don’t want to watch while you do ‘just one more somersault.'”

Is everything peaceful and cooperative at this point? Quite possibly. Children often respond well to friendly directions that also make it clear that the limits must be respected. Yet, even if your child is ignoring you/talking back to you/or trying to fight with you at this point, you can still avoid getting upset and angry by responding coolly and calmly:

“It looks like you won’t be playing with your Legos today. We can try again tomorrow.”

“It looks like we won’t be eating dinner for a while. I’ll turn off the stove while you get yourself ready to feed the dog.”

“We are leaving now, Sophia. We can talk about whether you needed more somersault practice in the car on our drive home.”

Most parents hate complaining and yelling as much as their kids do!  But, when they’ve tried asking nicely and it didn’t work, criticizing and shouting may be the only thing they know how to do. After all, most of us didn’t grow up in families with parents who knew how to direct us without shaming and how to correct our misbehavior without anger. I hope the ideas I’ve shared with you here give you many new ideas to create the happier and more helpful family you want.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: