It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Journeying out of the Whinge Fringe

“Mooooommmmy! I can’t get my shooooooes onnnn! Moooooommmmeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee???
Daaaadeeeee! Mommy won’t heeeelp meeeeeee….”

Whining. Bane of parents everywhere.

Some kids, happy little sunshines that they are, never whine. Others seem to have “whine” as their default setting, launching into a prolongued bout at the smallest provocation. Most kids fall between, happy sorts for the most part, with only occasional forays into the whinge fringe.

No matter how often it happens, it’s annoying. They persist, of course, because it works. Eventually parents crack under the pressure, the Chinese water torture drip, drip, drip of their child’s voice, curling and curdling through the air, through their ears, boring into their frazzled brains. “Oh, all RIGHT!” we snap. “All RIGHT. Just stop that whining!”

We’ve all done it, and we all know it’s a bad idea. Problem is, how do you deal with this? (Even that old parental standby, duct tape, won’t work for this, because any whiner worth their salt can manage it with their mouth shut.*) That child does need help with the shoes, after all, so in the end, you’re rewarding the whine, right?

What to do?

A two-pronged approach is most effective. There’s the active and the passive approaches, both of which are used at different times.

The passive approach: ignore it. I know, I know, it’s like ignoring the whine of a mosquito as you try to fall asleep, like ignoring the fuzz of a radio tuned just slightly off the station. It’s hard to tune out. However, ignoring it is a valid and, in time, effective tactic.

But to ignore it, you have to truly ignore it.

One of my former clients, little Colin, was a default whiner. Everything that came out of that boy’s mouth was a high and grating nasal whinge, the kind to set your teeth right on edge. His well-meaning dad would respond to everything Colin whined, in a cheerful, polite, and upbeat voice. Dad was modelling great non-whine behaviour, but he was not, as he thought he was, “ignoring” the whining. He was responding as if his son wasn’t whining; he was not ignoring it. Ignoring means to pretend you can’t hear it. At all.

So that’s the passive approach.

The active approach is to teach them. I don’t know how a child discovers the whine, but just because they do it doesn’t mean they know what it’s called. They may not understand when they are doing it. They need to be taught.

So first: Identify the whine. This stage takes 1 – 3 days, usually.

“Daaaadeeee? My truck is stuuuuuck.”

“That was a whine, son. When you said ‘daaaaadeeee’, you were whining. Now I’m going to say it in a happy voice: [insert calm and cheerful rendition of child's exact words]. I like the happy voice much better. I don’t like to listen to that icky whiney voice.”

A little drama works well here. When you whine, put on the whiney face, the whiney body, the whiney voice. When you use your happy voice, you sit up straighter, you smile a huge warm smile, you are happy!! Perky, even! Which often makes the kid laugh – a good thing!

Spend a few days labelling the whine whenever it occurs. Repeat the whine, just as they said it, so they can hear it. Label that as a “whiney voice”. Then repeat the same phrase in upbeat tones. Label that a “happy voice” (or a “calm voice”, or something else, just be consistent in the term you use).

All you’re doing yet is identifying the phenomena and giving them the vocabulary. When you think your child understands the concept, move on to stage two.

Step Two: Label the whine and have them repeat the phrase in happy voice.

“Mooommmeeee. I can’t find my booooook.”

“That was a whiney voice, sweetie. Say it in your happy voice, please.” If they look at you blankly, repeat the phrase in a happy voice, and ask them to repeat it like that. They don’t have to nail it the first time, but if they make an effort to say it without the whine, that will do.

This stage will probably last a week or so, as the child gains in the ability to state his/her problem calmly, without the whine, and, increasingly, without your prior modelling. When the child can usually say it without whining, and without your modelling, go on to stage three.

Let me clarify: A child is entitled to their feelings! I am not saying they are not allowed to be sad or angry. Of course they can! They are entitled to their feeling – but they can (and should be expected to) moderate its expression. They can be upset without whining. They can be angry without hitting. They can be frustrated without throwing things. If the whine is caused by an emotion, get them to state the emotion. “Nooooo, it’s miiiiiine!” can be a firm, “No. That’s mine!” If they are angry, they can say it without the whine. “I don’t LIKE that!”

[An aside: the "use your happy voice" instruction cannot be used on a child in the midst of a tantrum. To demand that a child in the storm of tantrum rage speak in happy tones is simply too much to ask. Tantrums require a different approach, which I've covered here, here, and here.]

Step Three: Refuse to hear the whine.

“He hiiiit meeeee!” (Oh, this is a tough one! I picked it on purpose!! Don’t you just want to leap right in and deal with the aggression? If it’s an either-or, then, yes, deal with the aggression and not the whining. But usually it’s not either-or. Usually you can do both. (Thinking analytically while under pressure – a huge parental skill.))

“I’m sorry, did you say something? All I heard was a weenyteeny whiney noise!” I often say this with the hint of a smile. They know I’m teasing, but they also know I mean it. If that’s too subtle, I’ll follow up with “Maybe if you said it again in a calm voice, I might hear it.”

Remember, by this time the retraining has been going on for about two weeks. They know what you mean. And in this particular instance, the child is well motivated to get you to HEAR him – he wants justice!

By the end of three weeks or so, the incidence of whining should be greatly reduced. For some children, it may be entirely gone. For others, when it does occur, you should be able to get a them to use their calm voice with a simple, calm reminder:

“Pardon? Did you say something?” (and wait for the calm repeat)
“Was that a whine I just heard?”
“Happy voice, please.”

When this is well-established, and the child is fully capable of reframing his/her words in calm tones, I’ll even tease a bit. “Oh! There’s that mosquito again! I thought maybe it was Suzie talking, but no, Suzie doesn’t make that teeny mosquito voice any more. It must be a mosquito. Where is it? Where is that mosquito? I need to squash it!”

By which time the kid is usually dancing around my feet laughing. “No! It was ME! I wanted…” and it comes out happy. (You don’t tease before they understand the vocabulary and expectations, though, because that would just confuse and humiliate them. It has to be a shared joke.)

There you go. A month to whine-free living. It’s yours!


*I don’t really need to explain that I’m kidding here, do I?

Just in case: duct tape is NOT an appropriate parenting tool. Please do not duct tape your children. Ever. No matter what the provocation. Thank you.

**Like the shirt? The picture is a link to the site where I found it.

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June 18, 2006 - Posted by | behavioural stuff, eeewww, parenting, power struggle, socializing

17 Comments »

  1. You mean I should stop using duct tape? You’re such a killjoy.

    Seriously, Mary P., you need to get the book written. This particular tactic works–I used it with My Boy, who is NOT a whiner thanks to the technique, and I use it at school. I had to laugh–I subbed for a fourth grade teacher a few weeks ago, and she had a sign on the wall–the old red circle with a slash over the word “whining.”

    Comment by Cheryl | June 18, 2006 | Reply

  2. This is too hilarious!
    We (as babysitters, my kiddo doesn’t talk yet…) always iterupted whining with “Did you say something? I didn’t hear you, there was a whaaaa-mbulance going by!”

    Comment by appleseed | June 18, 2006 | Reply

  3. Teaching kids not to whine is a useful life skill – I work with a grown woman who whines almost constantly and we all want to duct tape HER mouth!

    Comment by Sassy Student | June 18, 2006 | Reply

  4. Does this work on grownups too? Hee hee. I sound like such a malcontent these days.

    Yes, my teacher friend has also each year had to teach her kids that she can’t hear whiney voices. Seems to work well.

    Comment by kittenpie | June 18, 2006 | Reply

  5. I tell my toddler “I can’t hear you when you whine” and he immediately tells me what he wants clearly but this doesn’t seem to stop the whine in the first place. Maybe we need a training collar, like a bark collar, that zaps him when he starts to whine.**

    **Obviously joking! Well, obvious to me at any rate.

    Comment by Anne V | June 18, 2006 | Reply

  6. We do a lot of this, but I don’t think we’re completely consistent. I love your organized instructions. John was saying earlier that he felt like he needed to print it out and mull it over for ways to more aggressively address Quinn’s whining (argh…). Thanks for the ever useful tips, Mary P!

    Comment by Kristen | June 18, 2006 | Reply

  7. Ooooh, another useful one! Q doesn’t have enough words yet to whine, but I’ll remember your instructions! We had our first sentence this week. “Pizza, please.” Sigh. He is definitely his father’s son. :)

    Comment by Lady M | June 19, 2006 | Reply

  8. Whining= there is nothing quite like it. I find that benadryl in the punch works quite well.

    Just kidding.

    Comment by Jack's Shack | June 19, 2006 | Reply

  9. This one is so perfectly timed! We are going through a new whining phase this week. Sigh. Thanks for the pointers.

    Comment by Sunshine Scribe | June 19, 2006 | Reply

  10. you’re writing a book? that would be awesome! i loved this post because we’re going through this with both kids and it’s really getting on my nerves.

    what are your suggestions for kids that have a hard time focusing when you try to talk to them?

    Comment by kerry | June 19, 2006 | Reply

  11. I once threatened to duck a student to his seat. He wouldn’t stay put. He was 6 and annoying as all hell. It was October which is hell month in teaching because you are sick of them and they are sick of you. I snapped! Where were you then to remind me duck tape isn’t appropriate????

    PS. I never would have taped him;-)

    Comment by Momma to Ashley | June 19, 2006 | Reply

  12. This is a great lesson-post! Thanks for all the tips, I plan to use it my hubby AND son (no, hubby doesn’t whine but he does tend to not allow our son the right to be upset sometimes) so this is perfect!

    Oh, and btw, yes, we’re still dealing with the birds but this morning I discovered another set of parents up there with the babies!!! That means we’ve got a multi-family condo set up right under the rafters! Grief!!!

    Comment by Jennifer | June 19, 2006 | Reply

  13. It’s like you read my MIND. Your blog is better than a book, because it knows what I need better than I do!!

    We have whining here, but very few words. Lots of UH! UH! at a pitch that grates my nerves. We have given him a sign for “help,” which is somewhat useful, but I hate to think I just have to give in to the whining for now because he doesn’t have any other way to communicate.

    Now you’re going to ask me to rephrase what I just said in a happy voice, aren’t you? :)

    Comment by stefanierj | June 19, 2006 | Reply

  14. Someone needs a book to figure this out?

    How about the tantrum cry. Got anything for that?

    I put an end to it in about 60 seconds. When my X year old did it the first time, I got about 6 inches from his face and did it back. Every time he screamed, I screamed back about twice as loud, right in his face. We did this for about 1 minute before he stopped and never did it again.

    EVER.

    Crude but effective.

    Comment by Soprano | November 13, 2007 | Reply

  15. will you be available to babysit say, 6-12 years from now?
    hehe

    Comment by mar | October 5, 2009 | Reply

  16. Or you could grow up with my mother, who would arch her eyebrows and say “I cannot abide a whining child.” in such a way that you were afraid to whine and thought maybe you should kiss her ring. I got pretty good at the line as an adult but never quite mastered her tone, or the eyebrows.

    Comment by jwg | May 4, 2010 | Reply

  17. These are great tips! Recently found your blog and love it! My question: at what age can you start using these ideas? I have an 18 month old, and he’s got a good vocabulary, but not quite good enough to verbalize what he’s whining about.

    Thanks!

    Without being right there with your child, I can’t really say with any assurance, but I have a couple of questions, and a thought or two.

    Does he whine often? Is it clear what he’s whining about?

    If it’s a rare thing, I’d just ignore it. If it’s becoming, or already is, habitual, I’d want to act on it, but, given his age, perhaps modify it a bit. The most common reason for whining at this age is fatigue. If an 18-month-old is whining, I very often don’t address the whining at all. I just put the child to bed. Really.

    But if he’s well-rested and still whining, I’d suggest starting with stages one and two — identifying the whine and have him echo back your happy voice — and stay there for as long as it takes for him to get it. Not in any kind of stern or punitive way. It will just be a game you play. You may have to simplify the words, you may have to give him the words, but at 18 months he’s probably able to parrot words. In fact, he probably likes to parrot words! What a fun game! What you’re going to focus on for a couple of months, until his vocabulary expands more, is the tone of voice. Then you can move on to the next steps.

    How does that sound?

    Comment by Cheryl | August 11, 2010 | Reply


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