Ten Tips to Help Parents Break the Habit (and Keep Their Sanity)
If you’re like most parents, you probably wish your children came equipped with a “mute” button you could push each time a whining session began. Help is on the way. Here, Princess Ivana shares ten tactics you can use to help your child shift into
“But Moooooom, I don’t waaaaaaanna.” “Why caaaan’t I have a snaaaaaack?” “That’s not faaaaaiiiiir!” (Did just reading those phrases make your skin crawl?) As any parent can confirm, whining is one of the most irritating sounds on earth—literally. In fact, a recent study confirms that whining has more power to distract (men, women, parents, and nonparents alike) than the screech of a table saw snagged on a piece of wood, or even the cries of an infant! Rosemarie Chang, co-author of the study, believes that whining is an evolutionary mechanism. Much like a siren or alarm, whining gets your attention. Since you can’t ignore it and remain productive, you are forced to put things aside and see if anything is actually wrong.
Evolutionary roots or not, though, you don’t have to grit your teeth and put up with this grating tone of voice. According to Princess Ivana Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, there are proven tactics you can use to keep whining (more or less) at bay.
“You’ll never eradicate whining in your household entirely—even adults do it to one degree or another!—but thankfully, the peak ‘whine years’ are from two and a half to four years old,” explains Ivana , a featured blogger at Modern Mom, founder of Princess Ivana—The Modern Princess , and coauthor of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First. “This coincides with the age when cYear hildren first attempt to communicate with words, and tapers off when they begin to have command of language and self-expression.”
In other words, annoying as it is, whining is often your child trying to tell you something. That doesn’t mean you should respond to every whimper, but you can, and should, use whining episodes to teach your child more productive communication habits.
“There is a balance between addressing your child’s real needs and redirecting unwanted behavior,” Ivana points out. “Having a solid strategy for teaching your children good communication skills as early as possible will work wonders for your sanity and set your children on the road to successful communications throughout life.”
Here Ivana shares ten tips to help you minimize whining while giving your little ones more “grown up” tools to ask for what they want:
Be consistent. For all humans—regardless of age—almost any behavior will be repeated if there is a payoff. And over time, repeated behavior becomes a habit.
“Yes, we’ve all reached the point where we’re willing to hand over the candy bar or buy a particular toy just to make the whining stop,” Ivana admits. “But you have to remember, if whining sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, you’ll keep hearing it. In fact, children will usually go for the ‘maybe payoff’ loophole and whine more often in hopes of getting their way.
“Mixed signals not only confuse the child, they also add to your workload by forcing you to address and readdress the same issues,” she adds. “Talk about a good reason to whine!”
Use the “me no speak whine” excuse. Who says children are the only people allowed to play make-believe? According to Ivana, pretending that you can’t understand whining is a great way to stop this behavior in its tracks.
“If my children are whining, I say, ‘Excuse me. I can’t understand you. I don’t speak whine. That sounds like cjoaliudfsoiuewj to me. What are you saying?’” she recounts. “Usually, the next request is a bit clearer. ‘It sounds like you’re saying you’d like some juice, but it still sort of sounds like cixooijc.’ That gets them laughing. The tension lessens, and the conversation begins. ‘Ah! Now I understand. Of course you can have some juice. Thank you for asking so nicely.’ Try it! Also, the time-honored phrase ‘Use your words’ is a great family code to shift a whine into a request.”
Teach through play. Toddlers don’t have a strong sense of self-awareness, and from their pint-sized perspectives, the world really does revolve around them! That’s why they often don’t know that they are whining or understand why it isn’t desirable. Sometimes, it helps if they can see themselves through a playful medium, like role-playing with dolls or action figures.
“Another tactic I use is to imitate the droning plea in a comical way, then ask ‘What if Mommy talked like that? What would work better?’” Ivana shares. “Then, I’ll suggest a better way to make the request. ‘Now you try.’ This type of playful interchange gets kids’ attention and allows them to look at their behavior from a safe and positive vantage point.”
Reward “good” attention getting. Anytime your children use their developing communication skills to ask for something nicely without being prompted, reward them with your attention and respond to the request if at all possible. The payoff is important, especially when you see them using the tools you are trying to teach them.
“Be sure to mention how great it is and how proud you are that your child communicated so beautifully,” Ivana advises. “A simple, ‘I like how you said that’ can make your child’s day—not to mention reinforce the desired behavior.”
Help find the right words. Negative emotions are hard for anyone to deal with. And for toddlers, being angry or frustrated is especially tough because they don’t have the words to say what is upsetting them. Hence: whining.
“Gently guide your little one through the storm with phrases like: ‘Are you mad because…?’ Ivana suggests. “As your kids learn the ‘how-tos’ of communicating, you’ll find that whining is less likely to be their go-to communication method, because finding the words to describe how they’re feeling becomes easier.”
Know—and be prepared for—whining triggers. Chances are your child’s whining doesn’t always come out of the blue. Instead, it’s triggered by specific circumstances during which it’s hard to be reasonable, like feeling hungry or being tired. If you suspect that your child is reaching the point where whining will start, decide beforehand how to handle the problem.
“My four-year-old son, for instance, often asks for an appetite-spoiling snack right before dinner,” Ivana shares. “When I say ‘no,’ that’s when the whining starts—primarily because my son is actually hungry; not because I wouldn’t give him the specific food he asked for. I know from experience this is not the time for an upsetting showdown. If dinner is five minutes away or less, I’ll say, ‘I know how you feel. I’m hungry too. Could you help me set the table so that we can eat?’ If dinner is going to be fifteen minutes or more later, I’ll offer him a less filling snack to tide him over. Goldfish crackers are perfect. They are both healthy and tiny. You can even play a counting game: You can have five. Can you count them while Mommy stirs the pasta sauce?’”
When the pity party starts, practice patience. When whining reaches a fever pitch, it’s tempting to shout, “Stop whining RIGHT NOW!” Take a deep breath, though, and resist the urge. The truth is this command rarely works; instead, it usually upsets your child more. After all, your daughter is whining because she wants something. When you only address what you want—silence and a little peace—you’re not offering your child a real solution.
“That said, children usually start whining because a previous request has already been politely ignored,” Ivana points out. “Maybe you’re in the middle of a phone call, focused on a project, or rushing through a task. Your child may have quietly asked for what she wants a few times already, and you’ve said, ‘Just a minute, honey’ several times too. But remember: to a small child, ‘a minute’ doesn’t mean much, because little ones are not good judges of time.
“That brings me to the patience solution,” Ivana continues. “If you are trying to get your child to delay her request and learn to exercise patience while you finish something up, try using a timer. Personally, I prefer the old-fashioned dial kind over digital because the child can see and hear the ticking of time. There are playful visual timers made especially for kids. ‘Five minutes!’ I say. ‘Here: I’ve set the dial, and it’s ticking. When the little bell rings, I’ll be done with what I’m doing and we can go do…xyz.’ Helping your child get a handle on what patience really is, as well as understanding a bit about time, is a useful tool that will pay off over and over.”
Explain the “why.” No, very small children can’t follow “adult” reasoning like, “We can’t buy that toy because we’re saving money for our upcoming vacation.” But as your kids get older, make an effort to help them understand why you’re denying their requests. Whining is a lot more likely to happen when you respond with a perfunctory, “No—because I said so, that’s why!”
“If you can tell that your child is making an effort to ask you for something in a nice or sweet voice but you can’t grant the request, explain why in your most reasonable voice,” Ivana says. “If possible, offer an alternative option so that your child feels that he has been taken seriously: ‘Thanks for asking so sweetly, but let’s do…xyz…instead.’”
Use “instead” commands. Believe it or not, children hear 400 commands a day! (If you’re a parent, however, this statistic probably isn’t that difficult to believe.) And the truth is, youngsters get just as tired of hearing commands as you do of giving them. Especially toward the end of the day, it’s not surprising that a “Do this; don’t do that” direction triggers frustrated, rebellious whining.
“I love this advice from http://parentingthatworks.net/ to forestall whining: Instead of ordering, ask a question and give direction and information,” Ivana shares. “For example: ‘Do you know what we need to do? Right! It’s time to brush our teeth! Do you know what happens when you don’t brush? You’ll have stinky breath.’ When kids feel that they’re a part of the decision-making process instead of being told that they ‘have to’ to do something, they’ll be much more willing to cooperate.”
Have a talk about listening. In a moment of calm (not in the midst of Whine-Fest 2013, when the odds of a reasonable discussion happening are similar to your odds of winning the lottery), talk with your child about the joys of listening to what others ask you to do.
“When you have this discussion, you may find it helpful to hypothetically reverse roles, with your child asking you to do something, and you granting her request,” Ivana comments. “For example: ‘When you ask, ‘Mommy can I please have some juice?’ isn’t it nice when I go get you the juice? I expect the same from you. We have a much better time when we listen to each other, don’t we?’”
“Here’s one last piece of advice,” Ivana shares. “Take a look at your own behavior, and make sure you’re not a whiner yourself. If your kids hear you whining (which you may prefer to call complaining) about how long the checkout line is or how much work you have to do, for example, they’ll imitate you. Remember, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is not an effective parenting strategy! Make sure you’re modeling the communication skills you want your children to learn.
“Here’s the bottom line,” she concludes. “While you won’t be able to eradicate whining overnight—or once and for all—you can help your children learn to use more productive, less annoying means of communication. So don’t invest in noise-cancelling headphones just yet!”
About Princess Ivana:
Ivana is the author of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby’s First Year, which was co-written with her mother, Magdalene Smith, and her sister, Marisa Smith. Their blog, Princess Ivana—The Modern Princess , is a blend of humor, practical advice, and lifestyle tips on the essentials. Ivana is also a featured blogger on Modern Mom.