On Whining

If a child falls in the forest, does he make a sound?

Whining boy holding an ice cream cone.
We have heard the whines so often that the sound lives in our heads like a ringtone. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The pitch of the average whine is a B above middle C, but played on an oboe that’s a quarter-step flat.

Research shows that whining peaks in children between the ages of 2 and 4, but every parent knows that it continues well into tweenhood. In adolescence the whine is sometimes replaced by the sulk or the simmer, the dissatisfaction swallowed or, more likely, tucked away for later use. This is part of becoming an adult.

Our family spent a year traveling around the world, and during that year I learned that children whine nearly everywhere. New Zealand children whine. Costa Rican children whine in Spanish. Dutch children whine, but in a country built on comity and compromise, whining is accepted as part of the endless negotiation every family decision must undergo. And our American children, ages 11 and 9, whined everywhere: hiking on the beautiful coastline of New Zealand’s South Island, swimming in a water park in Dubai, watching a homecoming parade down Main Street of a small Kansas town. (“They’re throwing more candy to the other kids!”) As we rode horses through the Costa Rican jungle, the sound of howler monkeys expressing their discontent failed to drown out the sound of our children expressing theirs. I now consider myself a keen amateur scholar of whining.

For example: The whine comes not when we are least expecting it but when we are most expecting it, and it is more irritating for its lack of surprise. Each time our children rise to the occasion, we are freshly disappointed. The application of whatever a child’s trigger might be sets off a countdown clock in a parent’s head, like the timer on a cartoon bomb. We imagine what the whine will sound like before the child even knows she is unhappy. That’s why the whine is in its way worse than, say, the shout of dismay at a sudden calamity. Even before the child takes the breath, we’ve been hearing the expression of discontent she is about to make. To the child, the whine is the first straw. To the parent, it is the last.

In systems design, a single point of failure is a location within a system—a router, a segment of code—the failure of which will take the entire system down. Those who use the system become acclimated to that design flaw, making sure to avoid overtaxing, say, that particular router. We parents know our children’s single points of failure. For one kid, it’s being hot: The moment a bead of sweat pops on a forehead, the parent braces herself. For another, it’s a certain kind of homework problem or the frustration of a task not going the way it was supposed to. We know our children’s psyches intimately, have spent countless hours observing and analyzing them, and so we know the overload of a child’s SPOF leads, inevitably, to system shutdown.

We wish to whine but cannot because we are the parents. Our whining happens in texts to one another, in commiseration with parent friends on Facebook, or late at night, just before sleep, when we let our guard down and allow ourselves to collapse into frustration. When things are the hardest, it can feel as though we are carefully taking turns, considering: Whose turn is it to complain tonight?

We know the volume of our children’s whines, their contours, their angles of descent. We have heard the whines so often that the sound lives in our heads like a ringtone.

Is whining involuntary, like a reflex? In some ways it seems like that must be the case. Whining can be thought of as the body’s response to a stimulus, a spontaneous act rather than a considered one. Yet the wide eyes with which so many whines are delivered—imploring, beseeching eyes—feel so intentional that it is easy to view the whine as a calculation and to respond to it not with the understanding that one’s child has accidentally done something annoying but instead with the anger that one’s child is being deliberately manipulative.

Do not reward whining, parenting books instruct us. If whining yields results, children will learn to continue whining in order to get what they want. But we can go months responding to whining with stone-faced constancy, and yet the whining doesn’t cease. Some parents have convinced their children that adult ears literally cannot hear whining, but their children still, enduring discomfort or uncertainty, whine, and the parents are left performing a pageant of unhearing while their children keen, red-faced.

The idea that adult ears cannot hear the whining of children is not only an invention; it is the opposite of true. We really hear whining. A 2010 study revealed that the sound of whining focused listeners’ attention more effectively than neutral speech and even caused an increase in galvanic skin response, a sign of emotional arousal. The same researchers found in a separate study that whining is even more effective than the sound of infant cries in distracting subjects trying to solve simple math problems.

No one ever hears, though, a child whining from another room. That is because children do not whine without an audience, the person who might remedy the problem that caused the whine. A frustrated child gathers her frustration, carries it with her to the room where you are, and presents it to you as a gift.

If a child falls in the forest, does she make a sound? No.

We are taught that the ideal way to respond to whining is with exaggerated kindness: I understand that you feel upset because this isn’t going the way you wanted it to. That must be frustrating. The resulting disparity between the emotion we feel and the expression we deliver seems emblematic of parenting, where so much of our energy goes toward battling our instincts in order to do that which is right. Needless to say, we fail at this quite often, and so our first response to whining is, not infrequently, “Stop whining,” a phrase that has never, in the history of human parenting, stopped whining.

Whining is the sound of the devil’s nails on hell’s chalkboard.

It is the resolute unfairness of the universe that is, most often, the true subject of the whine. Not this vegetable or that homework assignment. That we live in a world in which all cannot be as we want it to be. Parents, for the most part, have grimly come to terms with this truism. Through hard experience, we have learned that asking will not make most things better. Viewed in this light, whining is an act of optimism. We think a child does not understand—but in fact, she does not believe, does not yet believe, that some unfairness cannot be remedied, and some injustices have no hope of redress.

This essay is adapted from How to Be a Family, out now from Little, Brown.

Book jacket for How to Be a Family.
Little, Brown