Winning against whining

I HAD ALMOST had it. Midway into our seven-day, seven-person, multiple-family vacation, my 6-year-old niece, Ashley, found my last nerve and stepped on it.

Last year, I had teased her about her high-pitched voice: “Ashley, you sound like you took a big gulp of helium.”

But the year of maturity didn’t lower her pitch. And on the fourth day of our vacation, an ungranted request led to an even shriller sound — the ubiquitous, universal, no-family-is-complete-without-it WHINE.

Adorable, with her crystal baby-blues and her sunny blond hair, Ashley began pleading her case to her mom for something — who knows what. She was at the tiptoe, prayerful-hands-begging stage when she moved to the two-toned “puh-lease” escalation. You know, the one that starts with “please,” and then, “pretty please,” and finally, “pretty please with sugar on top.”

About the time she reached the second verse of the same song, I snapped.

“Ashley, honey,” I said, “can you whine an octave lower?” She stopped abruptly, turned to me and said in her normal helium-ed voice, “What’s an octave?”

I smiled, grateful for the interlude in the chorus, and replied, “It’s a different level of pitch for the same note.” And I demonstrated with a high “la” and a low “la.”

“Oh. I get it, Aunt Becky.” And she attempted her refrain with a lower voice. But she cracked up laughing, as we all did, promptly forgetting whatever she was whining about, and we moved on to the next activity.

“Whine lower” became our new defense weapon with the war on whine. Consistently, the command elicited a laughter response, breaking the whine cycle. It even worked on the ever-present “But Mo-om” version of whine the older kids chant when challenging the word all children hate to hear — “No.”

Through the years, I’ve learned the pitch and tone of our voices can be powerful communicators. I remember in my career consulting days, coaching folks on their telephone skills. “Your voice is your image,” we taught our clients. Look in the mirror while you are on the phone to see if you are smiling. People can hear a smile in your voice. Make sure what you say matches the way you say it.

Enthusiasm can be heard. Confidence can be heard. Attitude can be heard.

And those of us with a tendency to show our anger quickly can benefit from a change in tone, too.

A good family friend and psychologist once suggested that I speak from the hurt rather than the anger that a situation produced. “You will convey the same message with a much less threatening tone,” he advised. It’s easier to respond to someone who is hurt rather than someone who is angry, I learned.

We may not be able to win the war on whine. And we may not be able to pick all of our battles. But we can always pick our tone and pitch, realizing the power of not only what we say, but how we say it.

This article was originally published in The Baltimore Sun.