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Child Caring

Winning the whining war: Why it starts and how to stop it

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Columnist / October 3, 2003

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In a fitting room next to mine, I can hear a mother whining to her child: "Stop whining, stop whining! I can't stand it when you whine!"

It's all there: the high-pitched voice, the singsong emphasis on certain syllables, the repetition. She probably doesn't realize she's whining any more than her child does when she whines.

We're all entitled to a good whine now and then. Here's the rub, though: Childhood whining typically peaks sometime under age 7. If you have a child who's older and is a chronic whiner, it may be because you are, too. The more we whine, the more our children will.

What we model is only a small, albeit powerful, part of why some children whine, but it's good to remind ourselves that whining is mostly a learned behavior. It also depends on:

Stage of development. Young children are more likely to whine because they have limited vocabulary and limited awareness of what is and isn't socially OK, says Christy Corbin, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Maryland.

Temperament. Children who are temperamentally anxious, inhibited, or needy may be predisposed to whine. "You can have two siblings, one's a whiner, one isn't, just by virtue of who they are," says Oregon State University psychologist Megan McClelland, a specialist in children's social skills.

How parents respond. Frustrated and feeling put upon themselves, parents typically go to extremes, coming down too harshly ("Stop! I hate it when you whine!") or giving in ("OK, OK, OK."). The former may silence the whining, but at what expense? "Who knows what he will do over time with his anger or frustration," asks psychologist Fran Stott of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school of child development in Chicago.

Giving in grants permission to whine more. Stott says, "You haven't given her any tools to replace the whining; you gave her attention, and you provided validation by relenting. She can only conclude that she was right to whine in the first place."

Knowing what to do instead is tricky, especially if the grievance is valid. Even if it isn't, children deserve to know how to cope with negative feelings, and how to turn a whine into a complaint, which is more rational and more socially acceptable. Plus, if a complaint is valid and you give in to it, you haven't reinforced whining.

For starters, don't be satisfied to make the whine go away just for the moment, says Corbin.

Children whine because they want something and they feel blocked. Underlying the want, however, is a feeling: frustration, neediness, anger, hunger, exhaustion, discombobulation. Getting at the feeling connects the dots for a child: "So this is why I'm cranky!" Do that enough, and he'll learn to figure it out on his own and to manage feelings himself.

With toddlers, the more you make of the whining itself, the more you reinforce it. "I wouldn't even use the word," says Stott. Restate the limit, with a simple explanation: "You can't climb that tree, it's against the rules." "We came to the mall to buy blankets, not toys." Then move on, as if the whining didn't happen, by trying to involve or distract him, much as you would with a temper tantrum: "Which color blanket do you like better?" If the whining continues (it probably will), repeat the limit but also label the feeling you think is fueling it, even if he's too young to understand: "I can see you're frustrated because you really want to climb that tree, but the rule is. . ." Stay calm. "See this as a frustration, not a deliberate effort to annoy you," says Stott.

With preschoolers, context is huge. Does it always happen at the same time of day? Maybe he needs a bigger snack. Is it worse on days you work? Maybe he needs more alone time with you. "What's been the emotional life of your child for the last 10 minutes, the past three hours, the past 24 hours?" asks Murray Kelly, family support coordinator at the Bank Street Family Center at Bank Street College in Manhattan, a child care program for infants through preschool.

For instance, if you pick her up at preschool and she whines for ice cream, he might say, "You're really insistent. I wonder if you're hungry. Tell me what happened at snack today." That changes the subject and gets her thinking below the surface. If you also have a new baby in the family, maybe the last 24 hours are more important: "You're really insistent. I wonder if you'd like some special time together with me." Don't worry that it's a non sequitur; it won't be to her.

Even at this age, Kelly wouldn't use the w-word. Sometimes, just the act of whining is cathartic and a child is ready to move on. If not, describe the behavior, he says:. "'Your tone of voice hurts my ears. Can you use your regular voice?" The request for the regular voice is what signals that it's the way she's asking that's a problem, not necessarily the request itself. Of course, then the request needs to be considered on its merits: "You did a good job using your regular voice. The rule is still the same, no candy before dinner, but I can see you're really hungry. Let's think of a healthy snack." Corbin is comfortable labeling whining for preschoolers, but sparingly: "The way you are talking is called whining. When you talk with your regular voice, people want to help you. When you use a whining voice, it makes people not want to help you."

By school age, whining is a social issue and the typical child knows whining is not OK. Consider an occasional whine a sign of extreme frustration, hunger, etc. If whining is frequent (and this is all in the ears of the beholder, McClelland points out), what's his role model? If you catch yourself whining, acknowledge it: "Did you hear me? I was really whining. Ick." Stott might remind a child, "When you talk in a whiny voice, a teacher might not be as helpful as when you use your regular voice."

Humor is a great antiwhine strategy for any age, and Larry Donovan, a fifth-grade teacher at the Chestnut Hill School, an independent school in Chestnut Hill, is a master. Faced with a whiner, he often makes his hand into a talking gesture and says, in a silly voice, "boop-boop!" Perplexed and annoyed, the student typically whines, "What?"

"Well," Donovan might say, "I could ask you not to whine, or I could do this, which makes us both laugh."

That typically disarms the student so he's able to use his regular voice, and the boop-boop becomes a shorthand they can refer back to if it happens again.

Using humor is also a strategy favored by Diane Crowley of Arlington. Her son Alex, 7, never whined but 2-year-old Anya is already an expert. When frequency increased, Crowley surprised herself by asking Anya, "Is there a mouse in your mouth making that squeaky noise? You better spit him out, quick!"

Anya thinks that's hysterical. She even flushes the imaginary mouse down the toilet. And, oh yeah, whining is declining.

Homing in on the cause

1 If you have a child who has never been a whiner and now is, does she have a playmate who whines? Point it out to her: "I notice Jenny whines when she is with her mom. In our family, we don't do that." If you notice your child whines when she's with peers, point that out too (but don't interrupt play to do it): "I notice sometimes you whine when you're with Jenny. Did you know that? Most kids don't want to whine with their friends, because their friends might not like it. Would you like me to help you practice how not to whine?"

2 Change and uncertainty (a new baby, a move, death in the family, parent's loss of job, even a child's transition to a new grade) can trigger regressive whining. Rather than focus on the whining, provide opportunities for him to express his feelings about the underlying issue: "Let's look at some pictures of our old house. I miss it sometimes. Do you?"

3 When there's no underlying cause that you can figure out, consider this: Whining is often a clue that a child just needs comfort. Physical contact. A cuddle. Provide it without commenting on the whining: "I could use a hug, how `bout you?"

4 Children need concrete alternatives to whining: "When you are hungry, here's what you can say."

5 If a school-age child is a chronic whiner, it may be that he hasn't figured out better ways to cope with frustration, that you have unwittingly reinforced whining, or that people in his life whine. If it's a new behavior, it may be a tip-off to some underlying problem, including a learning issue. Check with the teacher. Does he whine in school?
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