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Children produce a lot of sounds. Some are magical, like the snuffles of a snuggling baby falling asleep. Some are delightful, like a toddler’s giggles. And some are … less pleasant. Like whining. This post describes what whining is like for an under-slept mama of a challenging child, a mama who hasn’t the time, energy and/or ability to find perspective and a loving attitude towards what the child is really expressing. It also describes what that mama learned. I wrote it a few years ago. Re-reading it left me feeling amused, saddened, and SO glad that phase is largely over (only to be replaced by tweenie attitude, but that’s another post). For the avoidance of doubt, much of it is written tongue-in-cheek.

We all know whining when we hear it, but just for fun I looked it up. According to dictionary.com, to whine is

to utter a low, usually nasal, complaining cry or sound, as from uneasiness, discontent, peevishness, etc.

to snivel or complain in a peevish, self-pitying way

It’s gratifying to see my least-favourite sound described in such a derogatory way. It’s less gratifying to observe how often I indulge in it myself.

In Britain and Australia, the informal word for the same noise is ‘whinge’ (to rhyme with ‘cringe’). As ‘whinge’ is more satisfyingly onomatopoeic than ‘whine,’ I’ve used it here.

The sound of a whingeing child brings out the bigot in me. Whingeing is irritating. Its pitch and repetition scratch my nerves, upset my tummy and destroy my serenity. First I blame the parent – they must be getting it wrong. If I’m feeling compassionate, I assume the parent lacks the time, attention or skill to tackle such antisocial behaviour. If I’m feeling vicious, I assume the parent is an ignorant, abusive moron who has, depressingly, reproduced a particularly unfortunate specimen of humanity, and both parent and child ought to be banished to a distant continent.

Often, if I pay more attention, my blame shifts to the child, who is invariably behaving in an unreasonable and possibly abusive manner. I recoil at the fundamentally uncivilized nature of the human child.

As the whingeing episode continues, I imagine my grandmother pointing out that children have always whinged, and what’s wrong with my generation that we don’t seem to nip it in the bud. Aghast at my possible guilt in the matter, I point to the evils of television, DVDs, computer games, advertising, even the rows of children’s magazines lining the lower shelves of newsagents and supermarkets, the cheap plastic gifts glued to their covers luring the innocent child to its materialistic doom. ‘How do I fight all this,’ I protest to that implacable ancestor.

And underneath all this blame lies pain: my pain, for all the times I have spoken and the world has not responded the way I want it to, and a generalised pain for all the people who have spoken without receiving the response they want or need. But in the moment, mothering overwhelms me and while I’m conscious of feeling pain, I certainly don’t have the resources to process that pain. Instead it comes out as blame.

Pre-motherhood, I found whingeing distressing – for me, for the child, for the parent, for all who had to listen. Now that I’m a parent, I believe full scientific studies should be commissioned immediately and all the resources of the defence budgets of all nations directed at a cure.

Whingeing first elicits a physical reaction: a tensing of the whole body, a wincing, a cringing away from the source of the sound. Then, if it’s my child doing the whingeing, an immediate defence mechanism kicks in. I scan the surroundings to see if there’s any way at all I can avoid dealing with the situation. Is there any remotely plausible authority figure I can defer to – a teacher, another child’s parent, a stranger off the street who looks like Supernanny. There rarely is.

Once I am reconciled to the necessity of responding, it occurs to me that many books list strategies for dealing with whingeing. Next my memory banks fire, and I recall the three successful and 300 unsuccessful occasions when I have deployed these strategies. Struggling now against the memory of countless humiliating defeats, I decide that as flight is not an option, I must fight. I must fight kindly, and with much more sophistication than my vocal, uncivilized adversary, and in such a way as to incur as few stares as possible.

First one tries reason, though it is nearly always futile.

Next one tries ruse. This is the hard one. I’ve been linear and logical for as long as I can remember, and find it scarcely credible that pointing out the window while saying ‘rabbit!’ in an excited falsetto, could possibly distract anyone from the obvious desirability of the cake, the toy, or forbidden activity that’s her firm agenda. The people who are successful at ruse (known in the literature as ‘distraction’) have a special facility for invention. It remains a complete mystery to me, where in their brains they store that limitless supply of age-appropriate diversions, and the cheerleader enthusiasm required to override the single-minded, unsophisticated and therefore inexorable focus of a pre-schooler. My child can stare down a series of distractions. If she deigns to listen in the first place, a glazed look comes into her eyes as soon as she realizes I’m not about to give in. Then a look of pained impatience, a despair at being so badly misunderstood, before she re-launches the attack, only louder, because I’m clearly not paying attention and only an idiot could disagree with her agenda. Rabbit? There would need to be a hot-air balloon containing a three-ring circus outside the window to distract my child.

Ruse having failed, I revert to reason. Briefly. We move on to anger and threats and ignoring, all to absolutely no effect. The whingeing carries on for exactly as long as it was going to go on, regardless of my chosen strategy.

And what have I learned from 3 years of these humiliating and equanimity-destroying experiences?

  1. Giving in doesn’t work. The child doesn’t actually want whatever-it-is. What she actually wants is attention, and to know who is in charge. If I give in, she simply finds something else to whinge about. If I give in, I’m still cringing from That Sound, and I’ve taken another step along the path of spoiling my child. The trouble is, there are times it’s not possible to give her attention, and I’m not always sure what in-charge-ness looks like, either.
  2. Think before you speak – what is my limit, what is the rule, where is the clarity? I had better know, or make it up quickly, because if I don’t stick with it, I will suffer.
  3. Prevaricate. ‘Maybe’ and ‘I’ll think about it’ are worth their weight in gold (or, are worth 10 minutes’ relative peace).
  4. Move on. Tough to do if you’re sitting on a bus, but it’s the secret of my clean house: scrubbing and tidying are the best ways I’ve found to keep an eye and ear on the whinger without appearing to give her any attention. And even my expert whinger will give it up once the scene has changed and it’s clear who’s in charge.
  5. Remove child if necessary. Inconvenient, but leads to moving on, which is always good. During the removal, she will whinge louder and people will stare and judge, but at least I am the actor and not the victim in the situation. I can derive some minimal comfort from knowing that I have clear limits (even if I made them up on the spot), which I enforce because that’s what serves everyone best, in the long run.

My strategies, I’m very glad to notice, finally go beyond blame. On a good day, the days when my bigotry is quietest, my strategies sometimes even work. There’s absolutely no point blaming the parent, the child, the Culture, the movements of the stars. Whingeing happens. The question is not, whose fault is this dreadful noise, but how can I respond, in as loving a way as possible, such that my child eventually stops whingeing, tortures as few innocent bystanders as possible, takes another step towards civilized behaviour, and such that I end up feeling in control(ish!) and serene and centred?

The hard part (one of the many hard parts in this parenting business) is knowing what my limits are. Well, actually, that’s easy: I want that whingeing to stop. What’s hard is when I so utterly and completely can’t get what I want, i.e., peace and quiet and compliance, yet must engage with someone who doesn’t have a similar ability to accept that life doesn’t always offer exactly what we want. I resent being the grown-up. If I’ve got to spend my afternoon with an unreasonable energy- and attention-sucking creature (who exhibits all-too-rare dashes of the sublime), when I’d rather be doing two or three other things, the least that creature can do is make the best of it too.

That resentment colours what my limits are, clouds my clarity on what is tolerable and what is age-appropriate, wrong-foots me from the start. And that whole question of what I can reasonably expect from a pre-schooler, in terms of reason, compliance, etc., well, I ain’t had no training for this job and very little specific advice appears in the child-rearing books. The books that cover children’s developmental stages discuss physical capacities, language skills and emotional milestones, but not when I can say ‘no’ and expect the child to understand, or when to expect her to actually comply, and what percent of the time. I’m shooting in the dark, all the time, getting it conspicuously wrong a lot, to the accompaniment of disparaging and pitying glances and the potential lifelong emotional harm to my child. This is high-stakes stuff for someone who’s spent a lifetime attempting to be accepted and to get it right. My failures make me feel frustrated and inadequate and scared, all of which can make me lash out at my beloved child. It’s horrible, truly a vision and a version, of hell. Clearly, I am learning as much about growing up as my child is. And she’s learning a lot faster.