- Complaining involves voicing legitimate dissatisfaction, while whining is about something trivial.
- Complaining, venting, and whining have different effects on a person's psychology and emotions.
- Research shows children as young as 3 years old can distinguish legitimate complaints from whining and display empathy accordingly.
Complaining and whining can be distinguished by the nature of the dissatisfaction and by our motivation for expressing it. Complaining involves voicing fair and legitimate dissatisfactions with the goal of attaining a resolution or remedy. When we voice legitimate dissatisfactions but do so without the goal of attaining a resolution we are merely venting. And when the dissatisfactions we voice are trivial or inconsequential and not worthy of special attention, we are whining.
The distinction is significant because complaining, venting, and whining have very different effects on our psychology and emotions. How we complain affects us in substantial ways, many of which we fail to realize. They impact us materially, emotionally, physically, and psychologically.
In addition, how we express dissatisfactions has a significant impact on how we are perceived by those to whom we voice them (read The Survival Guide for Dealing With Chronic Complainers). Now, a new study expands this body of knowledge by demonstrating that children as young as 3 years old can distinguish between complaining and whining, and respond accordingly.
In the first part of the study, toddlers were exposed to an adult who displayed emotional distress in different situations. Some of the situations involved legitimate harm (such as one adult dropping the lid of a toy box on another’s hand) and some involved the adult overreacting to a minor inconvenience (such as having their shirt sleeve snag on the toy box lid). The adult responded to all incidents by pouting, frowning, and whimpering.
In the second part of the study, the child was given two helium balloons and the adult was given one. The adult then "accidentally" let go of their helium balloon and again displayed signs of distress. The children were much quicker to offer the adult one of their own balloons if they had previously witnessed them being distressed for justifiable reasons (having their hand caught in the toy box) than they were had they witnessed them being distressed for unjustifiable ones (having their shirt sleeve snagged in the toy box).
The study demonstrates that children as young as 3 years old can distinguish legitimate complaints from whining and display empathy accordingly. Taking time to consider whether our complaints are worthwhile, what we hope to attain by voicing them, and how doing so might impact those around us is a crucial step too many of us skip in today’s culture of complaints.
Copyright 2012 Guy Winch
“Young Children Sympathize Less in Response to Unjustified Emotional Distress,” Robert Hepach, Amrisha Vaish, and Michael Tomasello, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Developmental Psychology, online, Aug. 13, 2012