3 reasons almost all kids whine, how it staaaaaarts—and simple ways to make it stop
“I can’t do it. I can’t do it. You do it. I caaaan’t.”
“Why do we have to go now? I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. But whyyyy? Whyyyy?”
Read the above text in a high, sing-song wail. Sound as pitiful as possible. Drag out the last word of each sentence until it’s 16 syllables long. Try to moan at the same time. Then repeat each line in an unbroken, unwavering drone. Be relentless. Do not ease up until you get what you want.
That’s how you uncork a really fine whine.
You’ve probably learned this technique from a master—just about every kid on the planet between ages 2 and 10 has it down.
“Kids whine because it works,” says Alan Delamater, professor of pediatrics and director of pediatric psychology at the University of Miami’s Mailman Center for Child Development. It’s a classic Catch-22: We give in to whining because when we respond, that annoying noise stops. Kids then keep on whining because they see it gets results! Both sides’ behaviors reinforce one another, Delamater says.
In our defense, those screeching wails are a formidable opponent. “Let’s face it—it’s grating,” Delamater told me. A 2011 study found that a whine is more distracting than a baby crying—or even a table saw!
But how does it even staaaaaaaaaaart??
Whining begins as a natural developmental step midway between crying and gaining the ability to verbalize better, experts say. Babies have no choice but to cry to get us to feed or change them. Toddlers and preschoolers then rely on this same plaintive sound, mixed with their growing vocabulary, to express their discontent and signal their wants. And their relative lack of control over their world means that they can find plenty to be unhappy about.
No surprise whining peaks around 18 months to 4 years (but can last longer—guess where the whiny grownups you know got it).
The trick is to help kids not get stuck on whining as a way to get help and attention. Here’s what works for three classic whine varietals:
The Needy Whine
Why they do it: Toddlers and preschoolers live in the moment. So when they need something—a drink, help with a zipper or reaching a toy—they need it in the moment. Like…Right! Now! Not five minutes from now. That may as well be five days to their rustic sense of time. Saying “hang on” or “maybe later” only adds decibels. Our attention happens to be one of the biggest things our kids whine for.
What helps: First, make sure your child even gets what a whine is. “Say something like, ‘What’s that? I hear whining.’ Or “That hurts my ears,’” Delamater suggests. This helps them learn why you’re so ticked off. You could even model the sound so they can hear the difference. (Otherwise they’re oblivious.)
It helps to name your child’s real need, so they learn these words, too: “You sound tired.” “Are you hungry?” “Do you need my help?” Some people find toddlers’ frustration ebbs if they learn some simple signs to ask for things.Then redirect the attempt, he says: “As soon as you can talk calmly like a big boy, I’ll get what you want.”
“Don’t fulfill the request until they ask calmly,” he adds. “Then praise them when they do: ‘I like it when you talk like a big boy.’”
Above all: Don’t expect overnight results, Delamater told me. But don’t get caught in the game of giving negative attention, either. That’s the endless back-and-forth that happens when you insist on hearing a nice voice (or wail back “Whaaaaat do you waaaaant already?”), and your child whines back just for the perverse delight of continuing to engage you.
Let your child know that you don’t respond to whining, and then tune out until it stops.
Why they do it: Out in public—in a restaurant, at a store, at a party—kids are great at sensing that we’re usually more apt to give in to keep the peace. They have exquisite radar for when we’re about to be annoyed or mortified. Enter the escalation.
The late linguist Suzette Haden Elgin, author of The Gentle Art of Communicating With Kids, once told me that adults vastly underestimate how, from a surprisingly early age (babyhood!), children are constantly testing communication strategies to see if they work. And they quickly latch on to what does.
“Like a tantrum, public whining is coercion,” says Delamater. “They get what they want by making an unpleasant scene.”
What works: Ignore, ignore, ignore. Don’t worry for a second what anybody else thinks. (Anyway, if they have kids, they’ve been there.) Have one another’s backs as partners and friends, too: It’s no good if one parent ignores and the other concedes.
If things get really out of hand, the best tactic is to exit the scene—thus depriving the wailer of an audience.
Above all: Consistency. “If you follow this approach nine times and give in on the tenth, you’re completely undoing what’s gone before,” Delamater warns. “It’s like gambling—the child realizes all I have to do is keep throwing the dice or pulling the lever, and eventually I’ll hit the jackpot.”
The Sick or Tired Whine
Why they do it: Kids without many words can’t describe headaches, stomachaches, and fevers to us. So their behavior is often the first sign that something’s amiss.
Being overtired is another kind of physical overload that can set off the warning siren. Common flare-up times: morning rushes, spring and fall time changes, missed or late naps, bedtime, one too many errands, or the months when children are outgrowing naps but still sometimes need them. Some kids hold it together during preschool, then unravel in exhaustion once safely home.
What helps: If your child is unusually whiny, it’s always a smart start to consider his or her physical condition. Rule out illness or teething first.
Above all: Look for patterns to when whining cranks up. Sickness is only a sometime thing; giving your child a pass day after day is a clue there’s a bigger issue to resolve here.
Once you notice a trigger, see if you can make a change-up: An earlier bedtime? More time for transitions? Sleeping in tomorrow’s playclothes to make morning easier? A “quiet time” rest period in lieu of a dropped nap or right after preschool?
Eventually two golden things work together to muzzle most moaning:
1) Kids learn how to talk well. Once they have more words to express their needs and feelings, those moaning sounds that push us to the edge of madness start to form into sounds that make sense and don’t drive us nuts.
(Good to know: Find out if your child is a late talker and what to do about it.)
2) Persistence really pays off. When we keep heading them off at the whiny pass, calmly and consistently, even when it tries the last ounce of patience in our souls, they DO learn to use their words in ways that are kinder on everybody’s ears.
Even if in the moooooment it sounds like a habit you’ll hear forevvvvvvvvvver. “If a behavior is learned, it can be unlearned,” assures Delamater. And whine not.