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The Complaint Department

We've Got a Lot of Kids

It’s an anniversary: I’ve been writing We’ve Got a Lot of Kids for six years, and we still have a lot of kids, and I’m still writing columns about them.

Over the last year our kids have grown a little taller, a little smarter, more graceful; they’ve shed baby fat and grown into semi-sophisticated grade-schoolers with quickly formed, quickly changed and vehemently held opinions. And they’ve developed into expert whiners, our four midget maestros of belligerent complaint.

They’ll whine masterfully about their supper, breakfast, lunch, dessert: the size, the portion, the shape and texture, while drawing detailed historical comparisons to meals previously eaten last week, last month or in another, more suitable family’s home, where dessert is served more often.

They’ll complain loudly at having to do the slightest bit of work, or work disguised as play, such as cleaning up a mess while singing a dumb song and clapping their hands, or any play that involves work such as setting up for badminton. They’ll decry the rotating seating chart for supper, or the back rows of the minivan, when it inevitably falls from favor.

At the heart of all the wailing and gnashing of teeth is usually a perceived violation of the principle of fair play. Our kids will complain vigorously about their siblings to anyone with at least one good ear to listen, and they’ll find something to detest in almost anything: all manner of activities, ideas, experiences; foods animal, vegetable or mineral; toys real, imagined or longed-for; compliments from one or both parents, both sincere and insincere; insults, slights, intensely irritating copy-cat little brothers and sisters; in short, any person, place or thing not completely, perfectly and equally divided or shared with beneficent fairness with every one of our four children, aligned in perfect accord with each child’s constantly shifting vagaries of whim.

One of our sons recently complained of having to eat birthday cake.

Their whining complaints are as skillfully composed as any Scandinavian saga, with distinct beginning, middle and ending sections; employing melodic themes with repeating sequences and colorful melodic contour. The climax of the recitative most often centers on the words "I", "me" or "mine".

Our dour four use what sound to my ears like the modal scales of Gregorian chant, sometimes three or more within the same complaint.

It begins with the familiar whiny descending three or four-note motif, in Aeolian mode, to introduce the theme (I hate zucchini, why do we always have zucchini?) transitioning to Phrygian mode for the exposition (fettuccine alfredo is my favorite but we never have fettuccine alfredo anymore. They have fettucine alfredo three times a week at Cameron’s house.), and Locrian or hyper-Locrian for the final supplication of intervention: the plea for fairness amid foul-play (do I have to eat the zucchini? Do we have dessert?).

Obviously, such masters of complaint have a number of dramatic techniques they’ve borrowed from courtroom litigators. Recently our youngest boy made use of actual tears to further his cause, during several increasingly convincing attempts to sway his dinner companion’s opinions concerning a particularly gristly pork chop. It worked ably to counter his cruel sentence before the pork chop, but the quavering lip and blinking-back-hot-tears approach backfired when he used that exact technique for his next several complaints, in a row, one of which was a simple request that he brush his teeth before bed.

Our kids are in constant competition with one another, Himalayan blackberries and English ivy; in a complicated and hotly contested game of pick-up-sticks, and shifting, malleable alliances that quickly form, stretch white and then snap like strands of sticky pulled taffy.

Apparently the principle of perfect fairness extends even to the complaints themselves. When one child complains, whining in a surfeit of melismatic discontent, the next may enthusiastically join the protest, to not be left out, to get their turn: me too. In constant competition, narrowing the whining gap.

I’ve discovered that I can’t write about our kids whining and complaining, without actually whining and complaining. However, when one or more of our kids are droning on in discontent about something, I’ve found it effective to whine right back. "Honeyyyyyy, they’re whiiiiining agaaaaiiin! Make them sto-o-o-o-op!"

Works every time.