Q.Our boys, 6 and 8, are bright and often sweet and generous, but the younger one has become whiny and negative this year.

At first we thought he wasn't adjusting to first grade, since his school day had gone from three to seven hours and he had to switch his focus from playtime to work. Now that we're halfway through the school year, however, we're not so sure. Every day our son tells us that he doesn't like school -- although he excels academically and loves to learn -- and that it's boring and stupid, even though we asked the teacher to give him more challenging work.

His attitude is also negative at home. We recognize his good behavior, give him consequences for poor behavior and seldom give in to his complaints, but he still talks to us in a bad, disrespectful tone of voice; he often answers us with "So what," "Whatever" and "Who cares," and he whines and complains when we tell him to brush his teeth, get dressed, set the table or turn off his video game or the TV.

Our 8-year-old has a similar, but less severe, habit of sighing, whining and slouching his shoulders when asked to do something he doesn't like. To be honest, I probably exhibited some of these undesirable traits when I had to deal with the ceaseless demands of motherhood after being an independent adult for years. It was a difficult transition for me.

Although I've tried to be patient, positive and less critical over the past several months, my new behavior hasn't rubbed off on my children. Could I be causing one or both sons to be negative? Could it now be a habit with my younger son? Could it reflect a problem at school? Or could it be a combination of these things or something else entirely? And how can I turn this behavior around?A.Stop feeling guilty. It's unlikely that your old behavior would have turned your 6-year-old into a chronic whiner.

School, however, could be the culprit.

Ask your son's teacher if you can sit quietly in the back of the classroom for at least a few hours, to see if you can spot the cause of his unhappiness. You may find that he's bored because the work is too slow for him -- or too fast. Children grow physically, mentally, emotionally and morally, and these paths aren't always in sync with one another or with their chronological age.

Or you may discover that the teacher isn't as kind, as imaginative and as clear as a first-grade teacher should be or that she has picked out some of the children to be her pets (or her targets). If your son's teacher has one of these flaws, ask the principal to intervene or to put your son in a different first grade. If she won't (or can't) do that, he'll simply have to endure. Just be sympathetic, don't make a big deal out of every complaint and see either that he gets a better teacher next year or that you look for a better school.

If you don't see any problems in the classroom, however, you might volunteer to help on the playground or in the lunchroom or the library. It's a great way to find out how the teachers, the staff and the children interact and if the teachers deal well with bullies and cliques, the halls are fairly quiet, the lunches are palatable and the bathrooms always have toilet paper and stalls with working locks. What may seem like a small problem to you could be making your son quite unhappy -- both at school and at home -- even if he never talks about it.

Unhappy or not, he and his brother should still be polite and do their chores. The family is a team and a team works only if it can depend on every player.

To get the boys to do their chores more willingly, ask them which ones they prefer, whether they'd like to vary them every few weeks and if they'd rather get their assignments verbally, listed or written down on a chart. When children have choices, their self-esteem and their behavior improve and the family begins to function much better.

You'll also have more harmony at home if you cut out TV and video games on school nights because they make your boys cranky when they have to quit, they interfere with homework or prolong it, and they take too much time away from the family. A walk in the dark after supper, a card game or simply the chance to hang out with you will be remembered long after a video game or another show on Nick at Nite.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.