Whining/whinging can drive a calm parent to the edge. Like nails on a chalkboard, the effect of a small person squealing their demand may unhinge you. Add refusal to comply with a reasonable request, and you have a recipe for disaster. OK, maybe not disaster, but how your react can inflict damage on the warm and happy relationship that you really want with your child.
So what do you do with a small child who whines/whinges? You could come down on them, all threats and authority. Good luck. Your child already knows that you have the power to deny them. They are choosing whining as an alternative to outright defiance, probably as a way to avoid a showdown. Insist on taking it there, and you may get immediate compliance but risk later explosions, or risk teaching your child that threats are the way to get what he wants. Oops.
Giving in to whining/whinging isn’t much better. You may have stopped the noise for now, but you have taught them a powerful lesson: this works! If you think that your child won’t try it again, or won’t try even harder the next time he wants something, you are experiencing wishful thinking.
This is how giving in will doom your plan. Every psychologist knows that the way to get a behavior solidly stuck in a child’s mind is to reward it intermittently. If it works some of the time, it will be tried again and again. Don’t believe me? Visit your local casino to see intermittent reward theory in it’s adult form. Every time that slot machine pays out, the customer is “taught” that it could do so again, if only they will keep playing. And playing. Folks, adults know the house always wins. Your child does not. They will keep trying their strategy on you.
Looking for advice from teachers or other “experts”? You will come away with some plausible strategies that often ultimately fail to bring the whine/whinge to and end. They sound so supportive, so understandable. “I can’t understand you when you speak to Mommy that way” is a common recommendation. An alternate strategy is “Use your big-boy/girl voice please.” I am going to tell you that neither of these strategies work very well with the chronic and committed whiner, especially if the perpetrator is under 5.
Why? Because you are using words to negotiate with children that respond better to actions. I am not referring to very young children or special needs kids with language skills under 18 months of age. But wait: those children generally do not whine/whinge. They don’t have the social and language skills to do so. They can be dealt with differently. This is why peak whine/whinge time is 2-5 years old. At this age, children can create strategies and observe their success or failure. But they are still little. They don’t infer from discussion, and they watch your reactions and the tone of your voice to support their limited language and social skills. Ask Dr. Harvey Karp. Happiest Toddler on the Block transformed my understanding of toddlers, and gave me happier days as well.
If your child clearly understands your request and your response to their request, and you consistently react in the same manner, you can wait out a whiner and teach them how to approach you. If you sometimes give them cookies right before dinner so that you can concentrate, or if you inconsistently administer natural consequences (taking toys that are thrown away from them, for example), then again, waiting them out isn’t going to work. But if you are reasonably consistent, this is the one strategy that will save your sanity and improve your child’s behavior in a lasting way.
By wait-it-out, I mean ignore the whine. Don’t react. You have ALREADY given them a response. Whether you are using Patience Stretching, my favorite move from Happiest Toddler on the Block, or simply a statement that if they want a snack, they need to sit on their chair, your response was already understood and rejected. Now you do nothing. You do not even make eye contact. Busy yourself, if possible, with some task in the room. This could be putting dishes away, folding clothes, etc. You want to be observed by your child to be non-reactive. You need to be able to observe them so that if they improve their behavior, you can respond right away.
The best way to respond to a formerly whining/whinging child who has come around is with warmth and humor. Nothing, absolutely nothing, sends home the message of success to them like an adult that welcomes them warmly. Don’t spend your time reviewing what went right. “You listened to Mommy so well. Nice sitting on your bottom in the chair” only works well with the youngest of the whiners. Most of them already understand that your warm response is in reaction to their compliance. Save the sing-song review for your infant; give your toddler or preschooler a hug, a kiss or some physical response instead.
Good luck, and see if waiting works for you!