My child almost always complains about what he's been given. He often whines that he gets "too little" or that others have better toys, clothes, and lunches than him. What can I do?


This is a very common lament from parents. What can we do to prevent children – and consequently their parents – from whining? Perhaps the first step is to understand that it is not our job to ensure that our children are kept happy all the time. It would be wonderful, however, for us to help them develop happiness skills that have the potential to transform their entire lives, and ours.

One of my children's books, The Happiness Box, demonstrates critical steps needed to acquire happiness skills. It's the story of a boy who is never happy with anything he got.

When a new washing machine is delivered to the boy's house, his father decides to turn the big box from which the washing machine came, into a Happiness Box. The father introduces his son to this special box by telling him:

"I've made a door for the Happiness Box.
Step in carefully.
The good that's found in everything
Is all that you will see."

The boy is hesitant, but he goes inside the box anyway, and gives it a try. He starts off by thinking about his favorite kinds of food. Next, he thinks about his favorite toys, sneakers, Jewish holidays, until eventually even his own eyes and ears become sources of gratitude and appreciation.

In the days ahead, whenever he is feeling badly, he goes back inside that special, cozy place in order to focus on what he enjoys, and he inevitably emerges more cheerful. One day, however, when he is on a bus going to camp and feeling kind of lonely, he starts wishing that there was some way he could take that great big Happiness Box along with him. And then it hits him:

"I must have laughed right out loud,
The moment it was clear.
The Box was right there with me.
There was no need to fear!"

What this boy eventually understands is what we can all realize with enough practice:

"There's a Happiness Box in your head, you see.
It's a Happiness Box if you let it be!
But if it's hard to use your head,
Just get a cardboard box instead!"

Through the years, I have heard from parents, as well as children, who've created similar Happiness Boxes. There are usually plenty of Happiness Boxes in the back of stores selling large appliances just waiting to be recycled in this wonderful way!

Another method for instilling happiness skills involves playing a "Gratitude Game" over dinner or a Shabbat meal. Going around the table, from youngest to oldest, highlights of the day or week can be expressed. Just about everybody seems to have a good time participating in this happiness-building activity, even more so as the years go by.

One more fairly subtle yet effective technique for instilling gratitude skills, specifically in very young children, involves the parent gently holding onto the sippy cup, piece of paper, box of crayons, etc., until the child expresses his gratitude. In the beginning, a parent may need to whisper the "magic words" for the object to be released, but soon, a silent smile from the parent will be the only cue needed. Children tend to catch on pretty quickly to this exercise, and its invaluable lessons are absorbed deeply.

Guess what happens when happiness-building skills are inculcated through repeated practice in a pleasant manner? Entire homes can be transformed into Happiness Boxes!