Would you like some cheese with that whine? Tips and tricks to help kids stop whining
By Debra Ross, Publisher, KidsOutAndAbout.com
With lots of input from readers
Readers of the KidsOutAndAbout.com list were pleased to provide all sorts of advice for what to do when kids whine, and their suggestions are below.
Survival of the whiniest?
I must confess that even though I thought I had prepared really thoroughly for parenthood before deciding to have Madison and Ella, the fact that they whined took me by surprise. After all, I had oh-so-naively figured, if my children aren't exposed to whining, they'll never start.
So I was somewhat surprised by the magnitude and persistence of the whining when it first started in Madison sometime before she was a year old. How could this be? I wondered. It was then that I realized how beneficial whining must have been to the survival of human beings. After all, whining is so grating that it rivets the parent's attention to the child, and makes her want to do whatever it takes to stop it. A baby is hungry, that's the noise she makes, the mother feeds her, and the cycle gets reinforced. Children whose needs are met survive to adulthood, children whose needs aren't met don't. Children who whined probably had an advantage that selected for that trait many thousands of years ago.
This realization made me feel better, because it took away some of the initial responsibility for the kids learning to whine, but not, of course, my responsibility for getting them eventually to stop. The important thing to remember is that stopping whining for good is a long-term process, not a short-term process. No matter how much we want to do something, anything, to stop the whining fast, giving in when children whine thwarts the ultimate goal: To have happy, pleasant, polite kids who grow into happy, pleasant, polite adults.
Two types of whining
It seems clear that there are two main types of whines:
- A child can whine FOR something -- he or she whines to get your attention about the desired object
- A child can be in a whiny mood, where there is no direct object of the whine
So our readers sent in two types of suggestions: One type is designed to get children to notice that they are whining and stop it, and the other is to help them break the downward spiral of a whiny mood.
Wants vs. needs
Karen, from Irondequoit, noted a nice distinction: When children are whining ABOUT something, it's important to distinguish what children want (i.e., momentary whims) from something that they need.
This reminded me that children, especially young children, often get into cranky moods for very valid reasons: They're hungry, they're tired, they're rushed, they're not getting enough freedom (maybe they're strapped into a car seat all day) or attention.
So as parents of young children, we need to be on the alert to make sure that children actually have all that they really need. This in itself will cut down on the whininess. If your children have regular meals and healthful snacks, they're not going to whine as a result of being hungry. IF they have ample sleep, they won't get whiny from being overtired. This sounds logical, of course, but it bears reminding. Remembering this also helps me keep perspective when my children whine: If they are hungry, thirsty, tired, etc., I'm likely to excuse the whining a bit more benevolently than when this isn't the case.
Never give in
Almost universally, parents who provided suggestions emphasized how important it is not to capitulate to whininess. So what happens when your child is whiny for a reason? Let's suppose he's hungry. He whines for a piece of cheese. Well, he really NEEDS some calories right then, and you're certainly happy to give him some food. But you can't give it in response to his whininess.
I think you have two options:
1) Make the child rephrase his request in a non-whiny tone: "You know I can't give you what you need when you whine, so can you try that again nicely?"
OR, a bit tougher, especially if the whining is excessive:
2) Solve the actual problem (the child is hungry) but in a way that is different from what he is specifically whining about: "You can't have the cheese because you whined for it; but I'll be happy to give you some peanut butter crackers if you ask nicely."
Now, if your children are whining for something that they don't actually need, then it can be useful as a lesson to show them both that whining is unacceptable and to help them consider a productive way to actually get what they want. As Karen said:
"I explain the difference between wants and needs, and ask them about what they are whining over, "Do you need it or do you just want it?" I use this tactic, for example, if we are in the toy aisle of a store. They may see a toy they want right now. But there are other things we have already decided we need, and are saving for. I explain that if I spend the $15 on the 'want' item, the needed item (say, a new bike) will have to wait even longer because I can't buy both. They usually pick the needed item in the end.
"The key to this approach is that the responsibility of choice is on their shoulders, not mine. This give them the ability to think about what it is they really want."
Stopping the whine in its tracks
Here are some concrete suggestions provided by parents for when kids are whining for something in particular:
Whine back at them so they can see how ridiculous they sound.
(Thanks to other parents who provided variants of this answer: Kathy from Byron; Stacy from Webster, Rebecca from Pittsford)
- Carrie of Walworth, NY says: "I sit right down next to them and join in: 'But Craaaaaiiiigggggg..... But Laaaauuuurrrrennnn' I start with my wish list: 'I want a million dollars, I want to never have to work, I want a mansion, I want an RV, I want I want I want...' They get so confused they stop whining and we move on."
Decide you don't understand what they are saying when they're whining
Sherri, from Rochester, recommends: "I tell my 2 1/2-year-old that I can't understand him when he whines. Then I say, 'Now tell mommy what's wrong.'"
The key, Sherri says, is to make sure to listen to them when they try to tell you what the problem is. "Many times, parents don't really listen to what their kids try to tell them and this leads to whining," she says. "My son rarely whines and speaks slowly, enunciating his words, because he wants to be understood."
(Thanks also to Katie from Conesus for a similar answer.)
Give your kids in fantasy what they can't have in reality
Jackie Perrin, of Walworth, found a great tip that she uses when her daughter whines for something in particular: She helps her imagine, in detail, what she wants. It's the empathy that seems to be almost as important as the actual object, and the understanding that the parent has of the child's needs and wishes.
"Once, [my friend] Beth's daughter, age 8 at the time, really wanted a new bike, but the family could not afford to buy her one. So Beth asked her daughter to imagine the bike of her dreams. What would it look like? Would it have streamers? A really cool seat? A super horn?
"It was so much fun for Beth's daughter to imagine her dream bike that she forgot about feeling angry that she couldn't have a new one. The tension was diffused because her feelings were acknowledged. She realized that Beth recognized her desire for a new bike, but that it wasn't possible in reality for her parents to buy her one."
"I have used this many times with my 5-year-old and it hasn't failed yet."
Make up a name for the person who is whining, and pretend that he or she is that person.
Tricia, of Webster, says that you can say something like, "'I wish "Mona" would go home. Her whining is really hurting my ears. I wish Sara would come back. Her voice is so much nicer.' Usually the kids either buy into it or roll over laughing. Either way, it changes the tone."
On the other hand, sometimes kids just get into whiny moods. (Don't we all? Adults are just usually better at hiding them.) They may be a little sick, or things may not be going right at school, or they've just decided to adopt a cranky role for the day as a kind of experiment. The overwhelming advice I received was that it's the parent's job to show the kids that it's much better to be in a positive state of mind than a negative one. A child, especially a toddler or preschooler, is unable to break the cycle themselves, so we have to break it for them.
Readers had all kinds of suggestions for distracting children out of bad moods: Making jokes, pretending to whine yourself so the child sees how silly it sounds, tickling, being almost excessively cheerful so the child can't help but soak it up, things like that. My personal favorite which I use very infrequently so as not to disturb the magic it works: Say: "You know, I think you've forgotten how to have fun! Let me remind you!" and I go to the refrigerator and take out a can of whipped cream. My daughter gets to choose if she wants it in her mouth or on her finger. At least at this point (she's 4) it breaks the cycle. I had mentioned this to the KidsOutAndAbout.com list, and one of our readers, Diane, told me that this little tactic also worked with her 11-year-old: "I said, 'Mommy wants to hear sweet things out of your mouth, not vinegar!' She was so stunned she started laughing."
Here are some other suggestions for stopping whiny moods:
Break the cycle by distracting them with something positive
"Whenever my kids get whiny I back it up with something humorous like getting whiny back in a funny dramatic sort of way. This breaks the whine cycle with a few laughs. It doesn't always work, but it sure relieves stress when you laugh."
"I always ask my girls when they whine, "Would you like some cheese with that wine?" It makes them laugh but they get the point immediately!"
It may be necessary to send them away temporarily (e.g., to their room) until the whining stops.
Bridgette, of Rochester, advises parents to help make children aware of what they are doing when they are very young. "As soon as the child learns what a tantrum is and uses it, do not give in," she says. Then when they get older, it's important to remove them from the situation so they can learn that they can't impose their scene on others. "When a storm is brewing...I send my daughter to her room and tell her if she is going to cry and scream she can do it upstairs. When she calms down then she can return. It usually works!"
Do you have a suggestion for helping kids learn to stop whining? We'd love to add it to this article: Send email to ross@KidsOutAndAbout.com.