How to Stop the Whining (for now)

It is Them versus Us. Little versus. Big. David versus Goliath (hey, before you start feeling sorry for THEM, note that I didn't say who the underdog is here).

The game is long but the plays are short and there are no timeouts. Those cunning little warriors are unpredictable at best, irrational at worst, and will stop short of nothing going for the win. So we must dig deep, be agile and adaptive, ready to adjust our strategy at any moment. 

Whining. Oh, the whining. Early in my parenting game I assumed that if only I could find just the right strategy for whining, I could eliminate it in one fell swoop. Like getting an opponent's best shooter to foul out, I thought I could prevail with the perfectly timed, perfectly executed defense. And yet, here we are, years into the 'phase' or 'stage' of whining, the terrible-twos-turned-threenager. At this point I have no hope for ever completely eliminating whining. But I have found ways to contain it. 

What is my strategy? Well, it's improv. Which means, by nature, it's spontaneous and flexible and ever-changing. What's tricky is that there is no black-and-white rule or plan to follow, no exact playbook I can hand you. But I can give you an example and a general principle to try. And I can give you the gift of knowing that whining is surmountable - if only for fleeting moments - and you can transform it before your very eyes. Yes, improv IS magical.

Example from this week: My son was kitchen whining (you know, the whining about food/plate color/being picked up), and as usual I responded with "I can't understand that voice." Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn't. Wait! Keep reading - that wasn't the magical part. I glanced down and noticed that we had a stuffed Clifford sitting on the floor (we have lots of things sitting on the floor these days - with 9-month-old twins in the house - but that's a magical story for another day). I said, Hey Clifford, can you understand G? Pause while listening to Clifford. Oh, you can?? Great! Will you translate for me? Tell me what he's saying because I can't understand him right now. About halfway through my conversation with Clifford, my son started to smile and everything shifted. We were now playing a game, the tension melted, and we moved forward. I had Clifford walk over to Griffin and ask him what he had to say. Griffin whispered to Clifford, and then Clifford whispered to me, and I made a big deal of understanding Clifford because he was using his regular voice. We moved past the potentially tense moment, the whining stopped (for now), I didn't go bonkers, and we were both smiling. 

The general principle here is one that is at the core of improv: yes, and. As a parent we may feel we say yes too much, or perhaps not enough: Yes to a snack, yes to the park, no to a treat, no to t.v. But I'm not talking about giving or denying permission. I'm talking about a yes that means acceptance, the yes that acknowledges what is happening when it is happening. When you say yes, and in improv, you are accepting what your scene partner is saying. The alternative is resisting or blocking what is happening. An improv scene can't move forward if you are constantly blocking your partner. 

Importantly, it is not that I said yes to his whining. I was not giving him permission to whine. But rather, I accepted the fact that he was whining. Once I accepted it, I was better able to be creative and figure out how to 'play with' it, how to move forward, and ultimately how to transform the moment. The bottom line is that he knows we don't enjoy whining. He probably doesn't like it either. That message has been made clear. But his little brain isn't always able to control his tone of voice or emotions (heck, my brain certainly can't either!). So instead of blaming or punishing or getting really annoyed (which I certainly do, plenty), we can accept that it is happening, find a creative way to acknowledge it, and then move on. 

I can't promise that this will work every time. But I can promise that it works sometimes, and in simply trying yes, and, you can open yourself up to many more possibilities in the long, strange game of parenting. 

 

Keren Gudeman

Minneapolis, Minnesota