Malcolm's scene with the pants, and countless others like it, have led me to reflect on a contradiction in my philosophies. Well, not a contradiction – a dynamic tension.
On the one hand, I really don't like complaining. I am generally a stoic, both by temperament and conscious conviction. I believe that complaining is a vice. Complaining creates a climate of negativity, focuses attention on one's distress instead of the matters at hand, and cultivates a sense of powerlessness and ingratitude. I believe it is admirable and desirable to keep your complaints to yourself – at least, until someone has given you permission to share them.
On the other hand, I grew up in a household in which all emotion was viewed with suspicion. The line between proper control and outright repression was difficult to discern. An ability to hide one's emotions was generally more valued than the ability to express them. My family was polite, respectful, generally harmonious . . . but low on intimacy. Which, I think, ultimately thwarted self-knowledge. It takes me forever to figure out how I really feel, because I got so good at stuffing all such messy, scary feelings into dark corners of my psyche.
These two ideals – stoic resolve, and open expression – are somewhat contradictory. I want my kids to be at home with their emotions. I want them to feel free to express what's really going on inside of them. Then again, I don't want them to be whiny brats, either. I would like them to be able to acknowledge feelings, but also transcend them. I know that, in theory, the one should lead to the other: if you consciously accept your experience and observe it carefully, a Buddhistic calm should prevail, a detachment from thought and feeling and a freedom from compulsion. Sounds great on paper. When dealing with my kids, though, I seem to sway violently between extremes. One moment I'm saying, "I can see that you're really angry right now . . . what's going on?" and the next I'm saying, "Oh, for crying out loud, just shut up and be grateful for what you've got!" So much for modeling good behavior.
I wrote my comment on "Pants part I" before I read "Pants part 2" but I think my comment was relevant here. You can look at my little toy dialogue as a way of respectfully acknowledging Malcolm's feeling while, at the same time, showing him how to avoid getting stuck in it.
I don't think this is particularly difficult to do, once you get past step 1, which is the step where I always get tripped up, which is the mindfulness. Your unconscious reaction is to respond directly to what Malcolm is saying. To the extent that you are conscious at all, you are conscious only of the sense of urgency: "I have to get these damn kids dressed and to school." You are not conscious of the fact that Malcom's whinyness is triggering a defensive reaction on your part, and colliding with the dozen other things you're worried about getting done this morning, etc. So you don't think, you react.
If you can catch yourself, take a deep breath, and pause to observe what's really going on (with both Malcolm and you), then a more rational response generally follows pretty quickly.