Nothing annoys me more than when students whine. I do not enjoy hearing a child (or an adult) whine. The sound grates on my ears and psyche. Whining has no influence over me except to annoy me no end. I believe that whining is one of the most unattractive behaviors and unproductive utterances that exists in the world.
There, now that I have gotten that off my chest, let me discuss whining in more detail, because I believe that parents and teachers suffer this same affliction in equal measure as I do. If I look at the definition of the word, I am likely to find things like "high-pitched sound," "complaining," "plaintive cry," "fretful," "cranky," and so forth. How nice. Those definitions make me want to snap to attention and deal with the issue. You too?
The above descriptions make me want to pull out my ear plugs. I cringe and back away, even when I hear adults do this type of behavior. I am ever vigilant with my own language choices as well, because I understand how unattractive a person appears when wallowing in the whining mindset.
Having now vented (or whined a bit, if you will) about this subject, let me address whining with more useful information. Why do children whine? I have read that whining is a bid for attention and that whining may indicate that children may feel the connection with their caregiver has been broken in some way. A whining child may feel overwhelmed, powerless, or lacking control over the current situation. Whatever the reason for the child to whine, the child is communicating important information. The issue then becomes what is the appropriate way for parents and teachers to respond to the communication.
When my university students whine, as I wrote about in my previous article about the importance of being teachable (click here to read the article), they are generally letting me know that they need my personal attention and help in learning how to do something. I naturally gravitate to their vicinity the minute I hear the whine and give the student some personal attention and physical correction. I also make a joke of the whining, in case the student was unaware of the behavior: "Did you just whine? Wow! How attractive is that?" We usually laugh about it, and now the student is more aware of the behavior in the future (I hope). I am also more ready to make that same observation the next time the student whines. Toddlers and young children may have the need to whine as a form of communication, but adults have much higher level skills of communication, or they should. I insist that grownups (like my university students) not whine when they talk with me.
So how do I cure whining? Here are six ways that I use to address whining and solve the underlying issues that whining represents:
Do not give in. The most important tool is the refusal to give in. I believe that one of the main reasons that whining is such a prevalent issue for parents and teachers is that the behavior is rewarded by giving the whiner what they are whining about. Nope, not me. My reaction is the opposite. I will not give in to whining except as I describe above with my university students, and I try and turn that into a learning point when I do respond. The type of whining that I refer to here is the type that is seeking to get something: Can't I have ice cream now? Can I buy this candy? This is that annoying, unproductive whining, when a child is demanding immediate gratification about something that is inappropriate at the moment. Children use whining in these situations because whining works. It wears down the unprepared parent, who may give in to get rid of the unpleasant whining noise.
Become deaf. One of my favorite tools that a parent shared with me was to be unable to hear what the whiny child's voice said. This parent would completely not respond to the child's whiny cries. When the child would tug on her mama, the mom would then explain that it was really, really hard for the mom to hear the child's voice when it adopted that tone. Other parents may head this behavior off in the beginning by explaining that the parent cannot hear the tone and then role modeling the correct way to communicate.
Imitate what you hear. Some parents report success when they parrot back the whiny tone and exaggerated speech patterns. When the child hears how the communication sounds, the child may recognize the ineffectiveness and unpleasantness of the speech. For sure the moment will be funny, and a reconnection may be established between the whiner and the whinee.
Address the underlying issue. If the whine is due to a disconnection between the parent and child or teacher and student, then address the disconnection. If the whine is about discomfort or pain, address that issue. Once I get past the whining tone -- usually by repeating the child's distress call with more appropriate communication (The chin rest feels uncomfortable with that size shoulder rest? Your thumb hurts when it sits against the frog?), I address the discomfort. I take every complaint about discomfort and pain very seriously and treat the child's complaints as true. I find it easy to dismiss a child's complaints as just another bit of noise in the universe, except that with my many years' teaching experience, I have come to realize that many children genuinely experience discomfort if the instrument setup does not exactly fit the child's needs. So I spend a great deal of time addressing the fit of shoulder rests, chin rests, and other areas of connection with the instrument. I have been known to use a lot of mole foam to cushion areas that cause perceived pain or discomfort.
Learn to tell the difference between the real and the fake. Some children or students whine because they do not want to do the activity, not because there is a real issue of pain or discomfort. I call this sort of behavior "fake" pain, and I handle this in a different way. When a student complains that the thumb hurts when it sits inside the frog (rather than on the outside of the frog, which is the generally accepted method that Suzuki violin teachers employ with beginning students), I tell a story. Never underestimate the power of story for getting and holding a student's attention and for sending a powerful message.
When I took karate classes, one of the exam requirements to get to the next belt level was to break a board. I remember how my karate teacher asked me to prepare to break my first board with my hand. (Here I gesture with the heel of my hand to show the student which part of my hand was expected to do the board breaking). My teacher took me to a brick in one corner of the room. Do you know what she wanted me to do with the brick? (Here I let the student interact with guesses, always wrong of course, but this engages the student in my story).
My teacher asked me to rub the heel of my hand across the top of the brick several times a day. (I gesture my hand rubbing the brick in time to "Mississippi Hot Dog" rhythm, back and forth several times). Can you guess what that did to my hand? (More silly guesses). Rubbing my hand on the brick made the skin on my hand tougher. I got a callous on my hand. My skin got stronger, so that I could easily break the board and not feel a thing.
(Here is my favorite part.)
So I think we need to take your whiny thumb to that brick over there and teach him how to be stronger and tougher. Let's go.I then walk over to the brick and take the spot on my thumb that will touch the frog and rub it back and forth on the brick in time to Mississippi Hot Dog rhythm. The child willingly joins in the activity to imitate me. We will do this about ten times. The child learns the lesson. Even funnier is when the child complains about something else the next time, like the chin on the chin rest. I start to go through the same spiel about the brick, and usually the student is one step ahead of me and decides that the chin does not need the brick therapy after all.
Recognize different sensitivity levels. Some students have lesser tolerances for discomfort than other students. For example, my stepson Jon had very little tolerance for discomfort. Poking him with my finger could elicit an "Ow!" in an instant. I carefully consider whether my student's level of comfort sensitivity is an issue and address this with one of the methods above.
Whining may be a simple case of noise-making to indicate an imminent tantrum, or it may indicate something else, such as a disconnection in the relationship or real discomfort. Keep an open mind about the underlying reasons for the whining and patiently address the possible issues. Although whining may be unpleasant to listen to, the sound may reveal some information that is useful for effective teaching.