Why grade-schoolers whine
Your grade-schooler relies on adults for almost everything — food, drink, love, money, toys, transportation, you name it. He has to get an adult’s attention to obtain the things he needs, and that can be a challenge. A whine is the sound of a child who feels powerless and is pitching his request in higher and higher tones to get someone to pay attention to him.
“Children do what works, and a whiner is looking for a response — any response,” says Jane Nelsen, co-author of Positive Discipline A-Z. So if a positive response isn’t forthcoming, a negative one will do just fine.
What to do about whining
Define it. Before you pin on your No Whining button and draw a line in the sand, make sure your child understands what you’re talking about. Most grade-schoolers recognize whining, but check to see if your child knows which is his whiny voice.
Label whining when you hear it, and ask your grade-schooler to use his regular voice instead. If he has trouble hearing the difference, demonstrate it for him (without making fun of him).
Some experts suggest tape-recording your child, both in mid-whine and during normal conversation. When the two of you are in a good mood, play the tape and talk about it. Explain that whining sounds terrible and makes people stop listening.
Have fun play-acting with “good” and “not so good” voices together — hearing you at your whiniest will probably elicit a good laugh from your grade-schooler.
Acknowledge your child’s need for attention. Grade-schoolers sometimes resort to whining when they’ve tried and failed to get their parent’s ear. That’s why you’ll often hear it when you’re trying to talk with a friend, concentrate on a television program, or keep track of where you are in a recipe. In short, any time you’re focusing on something else and your grade-schooler needs (or thinks he needs) your help is prime time for whining.
Whenever your child asks for something in a pleasant way, try to respond to him as immediately as you can. Of course, you don’t want to encourage your grade-schooler to “need” you every time you strike up a conversation with someone, so make sure you explain this to him: “If it’s really important, politely interrupt me, without whining, and I won’t put you off. But if you can wait, then please do!”
If you’re in the middle of something, take a second to acknowledge his need, give him a ballpark estimate for when you’ll respond (“Honey, I know you need help with your homework — let me finish up these dishes and I’ll be there in five minutes”), and follow through.
Make sure the wait is a realistic length: You can expect your grade-schooler to be patient for about as many minutes as he is old (seven minutes for a 7-year-old, for instance). Don’t just say “later,” which is vague at best — you can set up a timer and tell him you’ll give him your full attention after it goes off. And be sure to praise him for waiting when he manages to.
Show him a better way to address the problem. Sometimes kids whine because they can’t quite express their feelings, so help your grade-schooler identify them when you can.
You might say to him, for instance, “I can see that you’re upset. Is it because Jared can’t spend the night here tonight?” This will help you get a conversation going.
A grade-schooler is plenty old enough to understand how you feel about whining, though the best time to talk about it isn’t when his tone is escalating. When you’re both calm, tell him, “I didn’t like the way you asked to go to the soccer game this afternoon. If you really want something, you’ll have a better chance with me if you ask in a nice voice.”
Be sure to carve out regular time to read together, play a game, or just talk — without your child having to complain first. Thank him when he remembers to ask nicely, too. When he sees that other methods of voicing his needs produce results — and that whining doesn’t — the whines will taper off.
Avoid triggers. Kids often get cranky and whiny when they’re hungry or tired.
Taking a hungry child grocery shopping before dinner and expecting him to accept the fact that cookies will spoil his appetite is like putting a new trampoline in the kitchen and expecting him not to jump on it until the soufflé is done: It’s a foolproof recipe for disaster. Feed him before you go, or pack some healthy snacks he can eat on the way or in the store.
Likewise, life will be easier for both of you if you can avoid dragging him on errands — or even to the ballpark, for that matter — at the end of a long day.
Respond consistently. Whether or not his demand is reasonable, it’s important to let your grade-schooler know that his way of asking just won’t cut it.
Say something like, “I can’t understand you when you talk like that. Please use your normal voice and I’ll be happy to listen to what you’re saying.” Keep your tone and facial expression neutral (letting yourself get riled will only feed the fire).
Some kids respond better to visual cues: Try holding your hands over your ears and squinting your eyes in mock pain to signal that you hear whining (cup your ears and smile serenely when you don’t).
Most importantly, keep saying or doing the same thing, and don’t give in.
“Picture yourself as a Las Vegas slot machine,” says veteran mom Lisa Levi. “Your child pulls the lever and pulls the lever again. One win — even after 12 losses — will show him that a slot machine is a good bet for making money, and that’s not what you want him to learn.”
As important as responding consistently to a whine is acknowledging a switch: When your child does use his normal voice, it’s important to respond to him immediately so he learns that this works. Don’t feel obligated to give him what he wants if he asks without whining, though. Just be empathetic and appreciative: “I’m sorry that you can’t talk on the phone now, but it’s time for bed. Thanks for asking so nicely!”
Be — or at least pretend to be — nonchalant when the whining goes into overdrive. Your grade-schooler should know by now that whining — even in public — will get him nowhere, but in case he missed that lesson, now’s the time to teach him.
No matter where you are, whom you’re with, or what kind of tone your child uses, keep your cool. Don’t blow up or give in (“Oh, go ahead, do whatever you want!”). Even if it gets you immediate relief from that annoying whine, in the long run you’ll pay by hearing more and more of it.