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.

June 18, 2006 Posted by | behavioural stuff, eeewww, parenting, power struggle, socializing | 17 Comments