Editor's note: Portions of this article have been republished
A few years ago, with a house full of little kids, we were struggling to stop constant bickering, fighting, interrupting, rudeness, disrespect, and sibling rivalry. (Any of those sound familiar?) And then one day we got help from an unexpected source.
We happened to be in Alaska on vacation, and one day we were listening to a marine biologist giving a lecture on Humpback Whales. He said a lot of interesting things, but one part of his presentation gave us an idea on how to improve the communication in our home.
These 50-ton mammals, he said, have amazing social habits. Their verbal communication consists of "songs," and they are in constant contact with their family or "pod" and can hear each other's songs from as much as 100 miles away. They live in all of the world's oceans, and a major portion of their population spends its summers in Alaska and its winters in Hawaii.
Individual humpbacks are easy to identify because they each have a unique white and black pattern on their fluke (the huge, flat tail which they flip up and flop over as they surface through a breathing roll). With their fingerprint flukes to identify them, biologists have determined how loyal and committed they are to their own pod or family and how most of their extensive communication is between family members.
Their communication allows them to engage in remarkable teamwork – a sort of whale-synergy that seems to produce a kind of social enjoyment as well as the practical benefit of more food. Two or more humpbacks from the same family frequently swim down through the water in a synchronized spiral, constantly blowing from their blowholes and creating a cylinder of bubbles called a bubble net.
Small fish and plankton stay inside the bubble barricade as the whales turn and swim up faster than their bubbles rise – up through the bubble cylinder, huge mouths wide open, eating all the fish entrapped there. The efficiency of this "bubble net" technique is one of the things that enable a mature humpback to eat one-and-a-half tons of food per day.
The gentlest, most tender and touching humpback song seems to be the one that mothers sing to guide and encourage their baby calves. Humpback babies are born far below the surface, and the first challenge of the new mother is to lift and nudge her new child (with her nose) to the surface where it can draw its first breath of air. Those who have witnessed this nurturing act say they will never forget the mother's song that goes with it — a song of love and pride and confidence.
Many of the whales' songs serve the purpose of encouragement and of giving younger whales a constant reassurance of security and a sense of identity and bonding with their own pod or family. And here is one of the most amazing things of all: Humpback Whales don't interrupt each other. Generally only one whale sings at a time. The others listen and respond only when the first is finished. If another pod member does sing at the same time, it seems to take the form of harmony and of agreement and encouragement.
As our family listened to the marine biologist, we realized two things: 1. Our kids were engrossed—they loved these massive animals. 2. We wanted our family to communicate as politely and positively as whale families.
As we were driving home that day, we asked the kids what they thought we could learn from whales. Their interest level was high enough that, with a little encouragement, they came up with several things:
Like the whales, our family ought to strive to communicate almost constantly. The channels need to be always open so teamwork and cooperation can flourish.
Like the whales, much of that communication needs to be about approval and encouragement.
Like the whales, we should listen to each other rather than interrupt.
Like the whales, our communication needs to involve loyalty and teamwork, building trust and creating real family synergy.
Like the whales, we need to make our communication not a lecture but a song – a song of honest interchange and mutual respect.
It was the beginning of a little "secret code" in our family. When arguing or rudeness happened, instead of another ineffective attempt at lecturing or disciplining, we would just make eye contact with the offending kid and simply say "whales." We even role-played it a little, agreeing that when someone said "whales" we would stop interrupting or criticizing or bickering or lecturing or whatever un-whale-like communication was going on and remind ourselves to be more like the Humpbacks.
It wasn't a 100 percent solution, but it surely helped.