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Could a humpback whale make your child stop interrupting?
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An image from the book "The Book of Nurturing" (2003, McGraw Hill). - photo by Linda and Richard Eyre
Do any of you parents ever struggle with things like bickering, fighting, interrupting, rudeness, disrespect and sibling rivalry?

If not if these are foreign thoughts to you, things that never happen in your home no need to read further.

They sure were happening in our house. And one day we got help from an unexpected and unlikely source humpback whales.

We were in Alaska with our children doing some whale watching when a marine biologist shared some compelling facts about these amazing mammals. The relevance to families eventually inspired a chapter in our book, "The Book of Nurturing."

These 50-ton animals, the marine biologist 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 others songs from as much as 100 miles away. They live in all of the worlds 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 completely 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 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 social enjoyment as well as the practical benefit of more food. Two humpbacks from the same family frequently swim down through the water in a synchronized spiral, blowing constantly from their blowholes, to create a cylinder of bubbles called a bubble net. Small fish and plankton stay inside the bubble barricade as the two 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 technique is one of the things that enables a mature humpback to eat one-and-a-half tons of food per day.

It turns out that the gentlest, most tender and touching humpback song is the one that whale mothers sing to guide and encourage their newborn 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.

Many of the whales songs serve the purpose of encouraging each other and of giving younger whales a constant reassurance of security and a sense of identity and bonding with their own pod. And here is one of the most amazing things of all: They dont 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, agreement and encouragement.

As our family listened to the marine biologist that day, we realized two things. One, our kids were engrossed. They loved these massive animals. And two, we wanted our family to communicate as politely and positively as whale families.

As we were headed home, 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 specific 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 approving, encouraging and confidence-giving.

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 impoliteness happened, instead of another ineffective attempt at lecturing or disciplining, we would just make eye contact with the offending kids and simply say, whale. We even role-played it a little, agreeing that when someone said whale, we would stop interrupting, criticizing, bickering, lecturing or whatever un-whale-like communication was going on and remind ourselves to be more like the humpbacks.

It wasnt a hundred-percent solution, but it surely helped.

For more about the animal-based secret code for family communication, see valuesparenting.com.