Complaining is bad.
At least, that is the prevailing view. Complaining is often tossed into the same category as whining and talking back. In other words, it’s insubordination of the highest order, and thus a surefire way to get in trouble from above—whether as a child or an adult. Instead of getting results in fervent pursuit of justice and truth, complaining tends to make the situation worse. The injustices build upon each other as stacks of stone over an ever-deepening grave. But what if we have it all wrong? What if complaining, done well, is actually a ticket to a more fulfilled, successful, and happy life?
The definition of “complain” is “to express dissatisfaction or annoyance about something.” Taken at face value, it is difficult to find fault with such an action: not only do we consistently do it and simultaneously impugn it, but it is an endlessly reasonable thing to do. There are countless problems around us, from traffic and twisted ankles to misunderstandings and overreactions. Were we to ban complaining and “suck it up,” we would get nowhere as a society. It is complaining that pushes us forward and the lack thereof that leads to stagnation and complacency. And yet, as with any flammable compound, complaining is inherently dangerous—it is a risk to do it well and a calamity to do it poorly.
There are gobs of things to complain about on a daily basis: work-related ones and others on the homefront, significant issues and mundane ones. Some of these complaints are worthwhile; others are not but still we voice them; and others can be noticed but need not be addressed. These three complaints can be described, respectively, as constructive, venting, and offering it up—the latter two blending into each other, at times, with growth.
A teacher I know was at a public-charter school in the South when he ran into the immovable force of the post-COVID malaise, a pandemic in its own right, which swept through schools across the country with the ruthless abandon of a wildfire, leaving broken souls in its wake. About a quarter of his Algebra I students were woefully behind in mathematics, some of them having found their way into the class despite a failure to comprehend the four basic operations of arithmetic. He brought this up with the school’s administration and was told that, due to state law, all of the students had been waived on through in the COVID years because it would not be fair to fail them. “There’s nothing to be done,” he was told, and the discussion came to an end. Weeks went by, and despite his best efforts, the situation worsened.
At the end of the fall, he went to the school’s administration, this time with a plan: he offered to teach an extra class, creating a remedial course for the students who were falling behind—not just falling, but failing miserably. He only asked that he be compensated for his efforts. Again he was turned down. More weeks went by and, naturally, the situation did not improve. A third time, he approached the powers that were and offered to teach the extra class pro bono—just let me help these kids! He added that there was no way the students in question would pass the state’s standardized test if there was no remedial attention and, by the way, these kids had failed last year’s test too (but because of state law, had been passed on through).
This time, the administration—unable due to charter bylaws to make a decision of their own, it turned out—passed the request up the line to the charter network’s regional Director of Academics. Months passed until a decision was made, and the teacher only found out because he asked: we cannot stray from the course and add classes willy-nilly, he was told. By then, it was springtime, a third consecutive year had slipped on past, and despite setting school-best standardized test scores, a quarter of the eighth grade class was left behind to molder in the southern summer heat.
The teacher had complained—of that there is no doubt. He had voiced a concern, offered a solution, and pressed for reform. His supervisors had, we can agree, failed him and the students. But this was a case of an adult requesting a change to other adults. It begs the question, how should a parent or teacher respond to a complaint from a boy?
The gut reaction for an authority figure is often to shoot down complaints, like Chinese weather balloons, quickly and ruthlessly:
- It’s not your place…
- Because I said so…
- Stop complaining.
- Life is unfair.
- When I was your age…
When it’s a boy who has complained about this or that, inside, we wonder at the nerve of the kid, question how on earth he thinks he can talk to us that way, decide that we need to teach this kid a lesson, and invariably respond with legitimate injustice. The kid loses trust in you, you see the kid in a new, darker regard, and jointly, the complainer and the authorities decide that “you just don’t get it. You don’t understand!” The two sides retreat to their respective corners, lick their wounds, and then dab a little salt into them.
Accepting constructive complaints from a child is a daunting task, and viewing the exchange through a lens of winning and losing can be calamitous. One must approach such situations with empathy, prudence, courage, and confidence. This is a tall order for a parent or teacher with a professional plate already piled high, but in order to raise men of character, we must first be individuals of character.
When a boy complains, offer him the opportunity to express himself. It is certainly possible that the complainant is right, and it is also true that the adult has a vastly greater wealth of knowledge and experience. But it is detrimental to couch our opinion in a sense of self-worth from a lofty ivory throne; it is true that we may be right, but boys must also learn how and when to advocate for themselves.
We need not bend nor break when faced with a complaint. If we listen and explain rather than playing the “my way or the highway” card, we show love. If we reframe our “no”s into signs of affirmation, we show love. One can, after all, be both strong and loving. Attitudes of “all strength” or the misappropriated “love is love” are both inadequate; they may cause temporary satisfaction for us or our charge, but they will never lead us to lasting happiness. It is through listening, through empathy and prudence, that bonds of trust are built, bonds that will only enhance our relationships. I hear you and I’m here for you.
And maybe we, the authority figures, are wrong. Just as a boy will dig in to defend himself, as teachers and parents, we may well have the same inclination. Several years ago now, a young pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, Armando Galarraga, lost a chance to join baseball immortality when the final out of his perfect game was ruled safe. The play was irreversible, and the first-base umpire, Jim Joyce, could easily have dug in his heels—but afterward, Joyce was heartbroken. He apologized with genuine sorrow, and he has become a model of rectitude. We are not perfect, and there is a lesson to be learned there. Mercy and humility go hand in hand. Just as listening is a sign of love, so is the ability to acknowledge that we were wrong.
Venting is complaining for the sake of blowing off steam, that is, releasing negative energy rather than distilling our anger into a highly volatile substance. For younger boys, parents and teachers are ideal go-tos for venting. It is necessary to foster their desire to communicate openly so that as they grow older, there is a healthy foundation upon which to discuss weightier issues that may arise. The weather, traffic, homework, and no good snacks are just a few examples of simple problems. At times, these inconveniences or annoyances get to us in a way that can really drive us crazy—another canceled ballgame because of rain, late for an event because people never learned how to merge, a full problem set the day before another teacher scheduled a test, a legitimate protein crash only to find nothing but stale Manischewitz matzo crackers in the cabinet. To be stoic or not to be stoic, that is the question.
On an exceptionally rainy backpacking trip in the Massanutten Range with students one November, I found myself running caboose behind an ill-prepared yet stalwart young man. He marched uphill in his ill-fitting boots, plastic-bag poncho, and cotton clothes with a stiff upper lip, but an occasional whimper or cry of pain. The rest of the group was long out of sight, and as he huffed and puffed up a rocky incline, his face red with exertion, I looked back and saw tears bubbling into his fifteen-year-old eyes. I told him it was okay to acknowledge the truth of the situation: “This sucks doesn’t it?” I asked. He nodded and offered a half smile. I suggested he say it too. He looked at me askance. I told him it would make him feel better. He smiled again and muttered, “This sucks.” “Say it like you mean it, with gusto!” And he did. He leaned back, his face into the rain, and bellowed, “THIS SUCKS!” and his chuckle became a chortle, the first happy sounds I’d heard since he was eating Roy Rogers for lunch the day before. And then we marched on up the hill.
This was complaining in its purest, most necessary form. This student was uncomfortable and unhappy, but rather than attempt to bottle it up and allow it to scour all happiness from within, he acknowledged it and moved forward. In short order, we were talking about juicy cheeseburgers and happy memories from younger days.
A cursory look at some of the turns of phrase we use for such situations is revelatory: put a cap on it, bottle it up, shut it. Every one of these statements, by its very nature, places impediments upon the flow of things. And anyone who has ever played in a creek and attempted to build a dam can recognize that it will eventually burst with greater vengeance than the original flow. On the flip side, if we allow ourselves to acknowledge something and then move on, we can let it go and run along unburdened by the heavy yokes we place around our necks.
The danger here is letting the flow swell and burst downstream like an unbridled river saturated with snowmelt. A group of boys complaining together can easily turn into a torrent that is both unhealthy and unwieldy. The river soon bursts its banks and causes new, deeper channels where there were none before, leaving destruction in its wake. It is far better to nurture a healthy understanding of complaining at a younger age when boys rarely hold onto things anyway. Allow them to vent their frustration, commiserate with their experience, let them know that you care, that you see them, and then move on. By giving a river boundaries, we are not placating or negotiating but channeling an endless flow—you are not folding to the whims of an adolescent but simply stating, “I hear you.” Boys must be met at a personal level, each with his own personality, talents, and needs. Boys need to be recognized, and if they are not recognized by those they are naturally drawn toward, they will most certainly seek recognition elsewhere.
Offering it Up
Only with such burdens mollified can we grow into the understanding of “offering it up.” Over time, only after we have learned how to overcome certain types of pain and duly reframe them in our own minds can we begin not to dwell on them, or even to mention them. Further, it is through learning how to control that we can actually take control. Without a greater worldview than self, it is pointless to attempt to do so. Only after learning to complain altruistically can we then embrace the idea of offering hardships up for others. Some of those crosses we may even start to embrace—traffic could be an extra moment of time in the quiet of the car, the weather could be an opportunity to enjoy a park without the crowds, and Manischewitz matzo crackers could be an opportunity to… well, that’s still a tough one. And again, like a river, positive momentum begins to build, and it starts to become natural, rushing out of the eternal spring of love.
The ultimate goal is to learn how to make the best of a difficult situation and derive redemptive value from both mundane and more serious hardships. The oft-cited story of Pope St. John Paul II closing his hand in the door of the Popemobile and responding with a “Thank you, Lord,” is a noble one, but even the best of us would probably respond first with a curse. But perhaps after that curse, after that emittance of dissatisfaction, we regroup: my little sister snapped a tooth, my older brother is on the wait-list at his dream school, my friend’s grandmother is in the hospital, my teacher’s wife is having a baby… yes, my pain is a difficult one, but I can handle this for that other person. These are things that a boy can grasp, he just needs direction, and it is detrimental to skip the venting step. He needs to see us model it and to do it with him; he can be forced, but then we are damming the river. Rather, be the levee, the shoulder to lean on, when it seems the banks may burst.
To light a fire, it is necessary to strike a match. To live a fruitful life, it is necessary to live dangerously. Naturally, when we interact with fire, there is the potential for chaos. But if we hide from the chaos, we will never learn to walk the tightrope that divides it from order. Allowing complaining undoubtedly opens the door for chaos. The question is: How do we respond? Do we dam the river, let it run unbridled, or do we channel it and allow it to become an important and free element of a thriving society?
 Whining (or “whinging,” as my mother used to say) is not only uncouth but categorically different from complaining, and should not be condoned at any level. Such behavior is representative of an inability to control oneself and, by its very nature, shackles the individual in a static state of self-pity and despair. However, our response to whining, as with complaining, must still flow out of love rather than frustration.
 One wonders for whom it was not fair, since the students, the teachers, and inevitably the parents suffered as a result. Rather than pushing students forward, it would have been far more beneficial to hold all of the students back and redo what was lost. But I digress.
Cover Photo Source: Flickr (Creative Commons License)