Almost from the time my daughter, Elizabeth, could speak in sentences, she whined when she didn't get what she wanted: my attention, a snack, a repair job on a faulty toy. When she turned three—and suddenly seemed like such a "big girl"—her continued whining started to drive me crazy. I'd mutter angrily under my breath, clench my teeth, even whine back. Once I lost control and screamed "Shut up!" so vehemently that she burst into tears. But more often than not, I'd let her have her way just to make the shrill sound stop.
Like nails on a chalkboard, whining—an irritating blend of talking and crying—has the ability to make almost any parent get angry or give in. And preschoolers are pretty smart: They know that pleading in that pitch has a strong effect on their parents.
A whiny child, however, isn't deliberately annoying or spoiled. Whining is often the only way that young kids can express themselves when they're tired, cranky, hungry, uncomfortable, or just don't want to do something. Although three- and four-year-olds' language skills are rapidly improving, they still don't have the vocabulary to describe all of these feelings, explains Dr. Michele Borba, EdD, author of Parents Do Make a Difference.
Even when your child is able to articulate that she is hungry for lunch or hates sitting in her car seat, for example, she may still whine because she's learned from experience that you'll pay attention. "For three- and four-year-olds who are testing the limits of their independence, whining makes them feel very powerful," says psychologist Dr. Carolyn Crowder, PhD, coauthor of Whining: 3 Steps to Stopping It Before the Tears and Tantrums Start.
"If you can't stand whining, your child will do it even more, simply because it gets a reaction," agrees Dr. Jane Nelsen, EdD, coauthor of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers. Even scolding your child can reinforce the behavior. "Kids just want a response. When they don't know how to get a positive response, they'll go for a negative one," Dr. Nelsen explains. And needless to say, giving in ("OK, you can have one piece of candy, but promise you'll eat your lunch?") doesn't work either. You'll get a respite from the whining, but you're still perpetuating the problem.
Fortunately, you can break this pattern—in a way that encourages your child's development rather than punishes her. "When you stop getting frustrated by the whining, your child will stop too," insists Dr. Nelsen. At first, this laissez-faire approach seemed completely unrealistic to me, but because my daughter was a whine connoisseur, I decided to try it.
It wasn't easy—often I was tempted to yell or just give her what she wanted, but I was determined to be firm and consistent. "You have to exercise a lot of self-control," acknowledges Dr. Crowder. To my amazement, within a few weeks, Elizabeth had gotten into the habit of asking nicely instead of nagging. Here's what you do.
Refuse to let it bother you
Pick a quiet time and tell your child that there's a new rule: If he whines, you won't respond. "From then on, whenever he whines, keep your facial expression absolutely neutral," Dr. Borba says. Calmly tell your child that you can't understand what he wants when he whines and that you'll listen when he talks in a nicer voice. You might also ask him to choose a signal for you to use as a warning sign when you're about to stop listening, such as pulling on your ear, suggests Dr. Nelsen.
Help them "ask nicely"
She may not even realize she's whining—or she may not truly understand what the word means. The best way to explain it is to tape-record both her whiny and pleasant voices and then play them back for her. (Make it clear that you're using the tape to help her learn, not to make her feel bad.) You may also have to teach her the specific words to use when she wants to tell you that she's tired, hungry, bored, or frustrated. "Kids really want to do what's right," Dr. Borba says. "But too often, we mistakenly assume that they know what's right. When you show them, they have a model to copy."
Give praise where praise is due
"Parents always point out, 'That's not a nice voice' but often don't provide enough positive reinforcement," says Dr. Borba. You might say, "Thanks for using your normal voice," or "My ears love that voice." This worked wonders for my daughter. Whenever she asked for something politely, I acknowledged it and thanked her. At first, I felt awkward being so effusive, but her whining decreased dramatically.
Hang in there
"Many parents say, 'I tried it yesterday and it didn't help,'" Dr. Borba says. "But think of changing one of your own habits: It won't happen overnight." I noticed a change in Elizabeth within a month. Some kids may take more time, others less.
Unfortunately, if you don't help your child practice effective methods of communication, the whining may get worse and affect his future friendships. "Nobody likes to be around a whiny kid," says Dr. Borba. "Keep in mind that your goal is to help your child be the best he can be—and the time that it takes will be well worth it."