Our family used to live in a large home in a desirable subdivision in the Chicago suburbs. Like many American households, we had a newer refrigerator with a filtered water dispenser in the door.
One day, as I was getting a glass of water, I started to complain: “Geez, this thing is so slow. It takes like 30 seconds to fill a glass of water.”
Before the last few words exited my mouth, the shame and ridiculousness of what I was saying washed over me. What the hell was I thinking? Was I really going to stand there complaining that the seemingly endless supply of cold, clean, filtered water that miraculously arrives in my refrigerator door at the push of a button was coming out too slowly?
I was mortified by myself. After all, I was the one who had taught my kids to be grateful for basics like food and water. I was the one who taught them that hundreds of millions of people in the world don’t even have access to safe water, much less have clean, filtered water pouring into their homes day and night.
Yet, here I was, whining about how slow it was.
We who live in the First World are not always aware of how silly we sound when we complain. In fact, I don’t think many of us are aware when we complain at all. I caught myself that time, but I’m sure I’m guilty of bitching about things I have no business bitching about on a regular basis.
I know for certain that my kids are guilty of that, and I’m sure my husband and I are partially to blame. Though we try to set a good example, obviously we slip sometimes.
But it’s also the ocean we’re swimming in. Our children are being raised in a comfortable, middle-class, American life. We have a full pantry, a reliable automobile, enough money to fix our furnace if it goes out, and more electronic gadgets than we really need. We’re not wealthy by American standards — we shop at thrift stores and have to watch our pennies — but we are pretty darn rich by global standards. We have no room to complain, truly.
So when my kids whine because their sibling got more screen time, or because we ran out of their favorite breakfast cereal, or because we’re forcing them to walk longer than they want to, I have a hard time not losing my cool. I never thought I’d fall into the clichéd “Don’t you know there are starving children in the world?!” lectures, but I do. Because there are starving children in the world. There are kids being trafficked, kids being bombed, kids spending their entire childhood just struggling to survive. I can’t handle hearing my kids bellyache that they didn’t get to watch the movie they wanted to when there are kids who would give anything to trade places with them.
So I call them out on it when it happens. I explain that those of us who happened to be born in a country where you can always find drinkable water in a public place have no room to complain when our luxuries aren’t good enough. I tell them matter-of-factly that I simply won’t listen to or tolerate first-world whining.
We talk a lot about the importance of practicing gratitude and contentment, and of offering help to those who are not as fortunate as we are. And I explain that even their father and I can sometimes fall into the habit of complaining, and we hope they’ll call us out on it when we do it too. I won’t allow my kids to wallow in their imagined, privileged woes simply because I don’t want to come across as a hypocrite. In our family, we all hold one another accountable. I need their help as much as they need mine.
Awareness works. Since the day I caught myself griping about the slow water dispenser, I’ve never complained about water again. Those of us in developed countries need that kind of wake-up call once in a while, and our kids need to be reminded of how privileged they are as well.