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Hop on the WAAAAMBULANCE: In Defense of Whining Women

“Whining” is an insult that gets tossed around frequently and casually today, mostly between women. I rarely hear it leveled by men against women, women against men, or by men against men, except when NFL contracts are being negotiated. Then, athletes will occasionally be branded "whining babies" on sports talk shows, with a wailing baby sound effect in the background.

Ironically, the subject to whom the whining criticism really should be directed, and for whom it’s actually descriptive, rarely ever gets accused of whining anymore. That would be your average three-year old who’s melting down in that wailing, high-pitched persistent, tearful tone in the checkout line, “ WHHYYYYYYYY can’t I HAAAVE this CAAANDY… I really, really NEEEED it.” I guess it’s considered too harsh, to explain to your child about the manner of not wailing over a Snickers bar in an irritated crowd.

 What are we really saying when we accuse a grown woman of whining?

First, it’s important to note that the alleged whiner is never technically “whining,” or doing the adult equivalent of crying, pounding her fists on the supermarket floor and screaming, “I don’t liiiiike this.”

I’ve spent plenty of nights listening to women bewail their personal lives. True, some do it more artfully, considerately, and entertainingly than others. But in no case did a conversation meet the criteria of whine.

No, the alleged whining women are usually just writing or talking reasonably, contemplatively, and perhaps emotionally and provocatively, about one of the topics that have become Kryptonite to other random women: marriage, career, and parenthood. That pretty much covers it. You’ll rarely hear a woman-on-woman “whine” accusation that’s not attached to one of these topics.

The Whine Police patrol these topics vigilantly, and with a can of rhetorical tear gas in hand. The minute a female author, pundit, or Sheryl Sandberg figure gets to opining on them, the Whine Police sear them with:  “WHINY.” Sometimes, they’ll reinforce it with, “SELFISH.”

Unlike complaining, which has a positive and negative valence, and can describe a constructive act (for example, “I complained to the chef about his lethally under-cooked chicken”) whining has no positive attribute at all.

Whining is a slapdash, pre-emptive term of censure. Incurious, the Whine Police refuse to engage in “perspective taking,” which is crucial to moral growth and human understanding. The whining accusation says to the whiner, “You don’t have a legitimate perspective on your own life, because I don’t understand what could possibly be wrong with it, from my perspective or value system, so your complaint and topic is invalid, ipso facto.”  

Actually, it’s a rather breathtaking arrogance. While the Whine Police presume to call out the selfishness of the whiner, they actually reveal their own solipsism. They’re so self-absorbed that they can’t imagine that another woman’s perspective might meaningfully differ from their own.

I’m defending whining because I’ve seen how it’s been deployed inaccurately, and with such throbbing, visceral contempt, by women against women in the last 20 years. It’s a favorite bludgeon in the war between women.

Among other things the term has become shorthand to express class differences, as women’s lives have diverged, post-liberation, without actually having to confront them, or name them.  It’s a way of encapsulating in one muzzling invective, “you have so much. You are [FILL IN THE BLANK HERE:  More Successful, Prettier, Richer, Happier, Smarter, Funnier, Famous, More Powerful, More Popular…] than I am. So shut up.” This can’t be constructive.

Mostly, though, it's become a way to prevent exploration beneath the surface veneers of happiness, or the status quo. Whining is like nails on the blackboard of our national optimism and addiction to the bright side thinking.

Is there any way that a woman might bring up personally revelatory provocations about marriage, work, parenting, or any meaningful, personal topic, without it potentially getting called a whine; without hundreds of women hating on her for it?  Not really. The utility of “whining” is that it’s a null set—containing nothing and therefore potentially everything.

I once asked a friend what she thought of the book Loving Frank. “She left her children,” my friend said. “That’s whiny.” Case dismissed. The conversation ended.

One of the biggest whiner witch hunts that I can remember happened years ago, in 2001, when Naomi Wolf talked about her mixed feelings about motherhood on Oprah. The show generated more response than any other. The response, both literal and figurative, was this: Wolf, you’re a “selfish whiner.” Shut up.

Wolf wasn’t actually whining. She was simply describing her inner world of conflicted emotions about motherhood, presumably with the thoroughly American goals that it would sell books, enhance her fame, and perhaps help a reader or two, probably in that order. Whatever one might think of her efforts, by no toddler-approved standard was Wolf whining.

On a smaller scale I got the same thing from an email a few years ago, when I published Marriage Confidential. The emailer hadn’t read my book, but she was bitterly certain that if she ever did read it, she’d shelve it in the section called “Whiny Books Written by Rich People.”

The phrase grew on me. I once described my book using it (while a wee bit inebriated) much to my acquaintance’s delight. And shelving my book in “Whiny Books Written by Rich People” would be more accurate than its current, outrageous mis-shelving in “Self-Improvement.”

Here’s the problem:  The Whine Police have discredited a line of discourse that used to be an important staple of feminist “consciousness raising”—earnest discussion of the ups and downs and inequalities and glitches of personal and private life, even among otherwise high-functioning women. This CR discussion usefully sought after political solutions, but it began simply with talking, and listening.  

So I’ll be a whiner, and proud of it. I’ll listen to whining, too. Hop right on board the waaambulance. Do you want to bitch about modern marriage? Want to “whine” about how the contemporary standards of “attachment” motherhood are driving you crazy and feel vaguely misogynistic? Want to drone on about how erotic life got so boring after decades with the same partner, and can’t we do things differently? Whine away. I’m your vehicle, baby.

In your whining, there’s a seed of fruitful change, somewhere. And how else do we figure out what works, if we don’t even listen to the cranky questions?

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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