Sarah emailed to ask if I had any ideas about stemming the "tsunami of whining" that has invaded her home. In general, my response to whining is feigned deafness, with a healthy dose of goofy. "What's that? [furrowing of the brow] It... sounds... almost... like... English, but I just don't speak Whining." Or I will sing, "Oh where, oh where, has your pleasant voice gone? Oh where, oh where can it be? You can't get what you want if you whine, my friend, so try your nice voice out on me." (So, yeah, the scansion doesn't quite work. But hey, they're preschoolers.) If the whining is tsunami-esque and you are pulling out your hair and they are whining even louder, I suggest a different strategy. I call it ZETZER.
I believe that most annoying kid behaviors are incidental -- they just go with the territory. Have you ever shaken your head at a rant from the ranks of the child-free? "Those kids! They were whining! And not listening! And-- and-- breathing to boot!" Part of the work of the early years of motherhood for me was getting it through my thick head that my child was usually not being deliberately annoying.
Occasionally, though, I found that a negative emotional reaction seemed to be weirdly appealing to my oldest son. "Hey, I can't get what I want," he seemed to be thinking, "but neither can you. Fair's fair." Out of desperation, ZETZER was born.
ZETZER stands for ZEro Tolerance, Zero Emotional Response. It started in response to hitting -- I expended so much energy trying to teach my oldest son not to hit. Say what you will about spanking in general, I think it's a bad idea for parents who are dealing with aggression. "No! We don't hit! Hitting is wrong! And to enforce that moral teaching, I'm going to...hit you!" But what to do?
In those days the consequence for hitting was time-out; now I usually require acts of kindness or service. Even a two-year-old can put away his brother's clean socks for him, and I think that right actions can nudge kids toward right thinking. The ZET- part of ZETZER is to be absolutely rock-solid consistent in following up, because the "ignore it and it will go away" approach is not your friend in a tsunami situation. To crib from Barbara Coloroso, what is a practical response to whining that leaves everybody's dignity intact? How can you best send the message that whining is a waste of time because it will never, but never, get you what you want? How can you handle it if they are whining about a need that is actually urgent, and not just a preference that you can safely ignore until they lose the awful torturous gouge-your-eyes-out voice? (It could be as simple as saying matter-of-factly, "You really need [fill in the blank] right away. Next time you need to use a nicer voice to tell me.")
The -ZER part is the harder element for me: I respond to infractions as if I am discussing something as remote and uninteresting as infrastructure improvements in Myanmar. If my negative reaction is feeding a behavior in a kid who enjoys a little chain-yanking, I'm going to starve it out.
Do not underestimate the difficulty of -ZER. You cannot will yourself not to twitch internally when they do the same STUPID thing YET AGAIN. You can only choose to moderate your visible response, a practice I find exhausting when the problem behavior is at tsunami level. In advance, figure out a place to vent your frustration -- a friend, perhaps, who will not be alarmed by a Krakatoan cloud of invective. Don't try ZETZER when you've got a looming deadline, or when the weather is going to keep you stuck indoors for three days, or when you anticipate hormonal chaos. Nobody, but nobody, can push my buttons like one of my children. I wish it weren't so, but alas, it is. If it's true for you too, plan accordingly.
If you are thinking about ZETZER, I suggest a little preemptive problem-solving first. Are they whining because bedtime has been late and they're overtired? Are they hitting because they're bored watching you read blogs and negative attention is better than no attention? Are they disobeying flagrantly because things have been tense between you and your husband and they're trying to draw your fire to divert you from fighting? The fewer times you have to respond in a bland and neutral voice to this behavior that's driving you up.the.freaking.wall, the easier it will be for you.
Verb. sap.: I have found that I often see a temporary spike in the target behavior when I begin to work on it assiduously. "We do not hit." Oh, yes, we do. "We do not hit." You just watch me! "We do not hit." Tra la la, were you saying something, Mom? I'm busy smacking my brother over here.
Despite its difficulties, I have found that ZETZER can be really effective when I am caroming toward crazy and my kids seem to get a kick out of pushing the cart toward the cliff. Most of the time, patience and consistency will do the trick with annoying behaviors. But when they are creeping up (or exploding) instead of inching down, ZETZER is my secret weapon.