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The Summer Whine

Just as you may have been so excited in June for summer to start, and to have more down time with the kids, some of you may now be yearning for September to come. I have heard many parents complaining about how challenging it is to be with their children all day, every day, often accompanied by their children’s incessant whining. This is probably not the kind of wine you wanted to sip on your holiday time.

Kids whine for several reasons, and it usually indicates a lack of adapting to things they can’t change. “Let it go,” we say, or “Enough already,” but unfortunately this doesn’t always help!

Sometimes we don’t give a clear enough “No.” Instead, we say, in a pleading, placating voice, “Well, maybe we can do it later,” or “If you’re good/kind/nice, we might be able to.” Or we say, “I’m not sure, let me think about it.” What do we get back? Whine, whine, whine. If it isn’t a clearly closed door, children think the decision is still up for grabs. If there is any uncertainty, kids can be very persistent in trying to get us to change our minds.

Often we make the mistake of thinking that if we explain the situation, they will appreciate our greater wisdom and say, “Thanks Mommy, for explaining that if I eat the cookie first, I’ll be too full for dinner.” This is where many really nice, logical parents and educators get stuck! Adaptation is an emotional process, not a cognitive one. When our beautiful explanations don’t work, we get frustrated. When children continue to whine, many of us get mad and slam the metaphorical door in their face, screaming at them, “I said NO!” This doesn’t invite the sadness that is necessary for them to accept that we are not going to give in and they are not going to get their way. Instead, it usually makes kids mad, and then they launch into a full-out attack.

For kids to adapt to the things they can’t have, the things they can’t do or any of the lacks or losses in their life, there needs to be a firmly closed door. So many of us avoid saying “No” directly, because we fear the upset and drama that may follow. Unfortunately, when we’re wishy-washy with our No’s, we rob our kids of the opportunity to adapt. This keeps kids stuck in trying to change our minds and, “maybe later,” if they are persistent enough, they can get their way.

At the same time, it’s better if we can be warm and caring when we say no, rather than get mad at kids for trying to change our minds. It is frustrating when we close the door with a “no”! The whole purpose of frustration, when something isn’t working, is to drive kids to try to change things and make them work. They are just following their instincts. We just need not follow them there.

You may be very clear about your No’s with your children, and you could still get “the whine.” Your children may have a hard time feeling the futility of your “No,” and so rail against it. Children don’t always have access to their sadness and disappointment in any given moment. In this case, it is so important that we soften their hearts so they can feel this vulnerable emotion.

Futility is one of the most important emotions for children to feel because it is critical to the maturing process. All of us have futilities in life that we can’t change—including some of the big ones like the death of a loved one or not getting that dream job, or their simply not being enough time to do all the things we want to do. If we can’t find our sadness and disappointment about these experiences, we too may perseverate in trying to change the unchangeable, or we may lash out at others or ourselves in an aggressive attack. Feeling futility is one of the most important emotions for us to feel, and our children need lots of practice at it in their younger years, so they become adaptive, resourceful, and resilient adults.

What’s my recipe for sipping a good wine on a quiet sunset beach? Be clear about your “no’s’”, yet at the same time, be compassionate with your kids when you are saying no. This makes it easier for kids to feel the futility and adapt to your “No.” If this unfolds as it should, children will know from the tone of your voice that there’s no point in arguing, and at the same time, feel their sadness about not getting their way, and get on with enjoying the sunset with you. Wine in hand.


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“The secret of parenting is not in what a parent does, but in who a parent is to their child.” – Gordon Neufeld