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Pam walks in the house having just picked up her two children at school. On the drive home, she had told both children that she had to make some work-related phone calls as soon as they got home. She asked the children to take their school things to their rooms and change clothes while she conducted her business.
Once at home, however, the children dump their school bags on the living room floor and fly into the kitchen whining that they're hungry, they need snacks, they must have some milk and cookies right away.
Pam reminds them that she's asked for a few minutes to make some business calls, and she asks them once again to put their things away and change clothes.
At this point, the children begin to whine loudly, bickering with each other as they stand before the open refrigerator door, taking matters into their own hands. Pam is now at a loss. She's promised to make some calls for her fledgling real estate business, and she's already late. She wishes her children would cooperate and give her the few minutes she needs. She begs them to just let her make a couple of calls. They turn teary faces to her as they beg back for cookies.
She wonders if she's asking too much of a six- and an eight-year-old. Their pleading stirs her guilt. When Bobby pulls the milk out of the refrigerator and spills it all over the kitchen floor, she loses her temper, yelling at them to get away from her and go to their rooms.
Spilled milk? Yelling? Whining? Guilt? Parental self-doubt? Pam and her children have experienced all these things and more in their brief trip to the "whine cellar." Do you have a "whine cellar" in your home? Are your kids in it a lot? Do you find yourself going down there on occasion?
If you're like Pam the only things you can think of to do when your children whine are to whine back at them or become angry. Yet, in your heart you know there have to be better ways of responding. This book is about those better ways.
Few things can reduce parents to jelly or make them feel more like failures than the spectacle created by their children's misbehavior, whether it occurs in public or at home. It is difficult enough when children act out within the family unit, but raised eyebrows and critical looks from strangers witnessing "bad" behavior from our children magnify our inadequacies and make us feel as if we're not up to the challenge of child rearing.
Yet every child at times will test our limits, jockeying for power and trying to get the upper hand. A key weapon children use is whining -- the loud, pitiful, grating, or whimpering sounds that every parent has experienced. And while every parent knows the nightmare of whining children, very few have even a clue about how to deal with it.
Consider the following incidents:
Parents know all too well that what begins as whining can quickly escalate into a full-blown tantrum, and most parents will avoid that ugly conflict at all costs. If the incident occurs in public and parents do nothing in response, the opportunity for teaching children how to behave is long gone by the time the parents get the children home and out of the public eye.
Whining may become a staple of the children's daily lives, something they use to get their way in the privacy of the home just as effectively as in public.
Here's an example of a lost opportunity when a parent forgoes teaching his children respectful behavior and gives in because that is easier:
Dan, father of three boys, agrees to take them to the video store to rent a movie for Saturday night. He tells them as they leave the house that they can rent only one movie, since on other weekends the family has wasted money by renting three and never watching them. The boys agree and off they all go.
Once in the store, the brothers begin to squabble over which movie to rent, which, of course, leads them to begin whining to their father. One boy accuses the other of always getting his way; another complains that renting just one video is not fair.
Dan threatens to take them home if they can't agree on which movie to rent. They shrug him off, knowing his threat is empty, and continue to argue among themselves.
People in the store can't help but notice the boys' rude behavior and shoot accusing looks at Dan as if he is failing to act properly in his role as a parent. After several minutes of continued whining by the children and scathing looks from the other customers, Dan throws up his hands and yells at his sons to "just go get what you want and let's get out of here."
The sons, having gotten their way, high-five each other and race down the aisles to select their videos. Dan stands alone, feeling defeated and weak, as if his own children have beaten him at some game that he wasn't even aware they were playing.
Dan has just missed a golden opportunity to teach his children how to behave in public. Instead, he trained them how to use whining, arguing, fighting, and complaining to get their way. You can bet that this scenario will occur again and again, because the boys know it works.
Like many parents who find themselves in this situation, Dan backed down by appeasing his sons to keep the peace and restore some quiet, but the three boys have learned nothing about working with each other, cooperating with Dad, or showing respect for others -- including the other people in the video store.
Many parents like Dan feel helpless, especially in a public situation where their children's whining is drawing the attention of others. They feel there is nothing they can do but appease when faced with their children's misbehavior. However, parents must remember that whining is just a first step that can escalate to backtalk, arguing, and tantrums. Trying to appease whining children is a losing proposition. You're not going make them happy by giving in; they'll simply whine more. If you think the whining causes critical stares, just wait until the escalating tantrum occurs because you've failed to give them what they want.
Whining can be stopped. You can stop it by the way you respond to your child. In our first book, Backtalk: 4 Steps to Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids, we taught you practical techniques for handling your children's rude verbal behaviors. In this book we give you three ways of responding to whining that work and that are built on respect for yourself as well as for the child.
In this method, your child's whining is met with consequences that occur as a result of the child's misbehavior. For example, when your child whines in public, you immediately take the child home without comment. The logical consequence for not behaving in a public place is that they don't get to be there.
Consequences are most effective if they are logical and immediate. The earlier you begin using logical consequences, the fewer problems you'll have with your children later on. Using consequences works with even the youngest child. In fact, some people find this most effective with very young children who have not yet established patterns of misbehavior.
Most parents talk too much. Instead of taking action, they fuss, lecture, and threaten; meanwhile, the whining continues. Establishing consequences requires very few words, and these should be respectful, clear, and neutral in tone.
This method encourages the substitution of calm, respectful dialogue that gives a child a mode of communication to replace whining. Children learn to ask for what they want and to articulate their desires without tan-trums or manipulation. Parents must model assertiveness for their children and establish it as the typical mode of communication within the family. (Note: This is different from the "assertiveness" you've experienced in business or social situations.)
When you talk to your children, whether it be setting up consequences, following through, or stating how you feel about something, you must always be assertive (take the leadership role), respectful, and calm. We're going to give examples of this type of respectful language as well as provide you with an Assertive Communication Formula that you can use to address whining and other serious issues after you've dealt with misbehavior by establishing consequences.
The Assertive Communication Formula is especially effective when parents need to talk about value-based issues with their children. We urge you to use this method sparingly (the less you use it, the more impact it will have) to let your children know how you feel about very important topics like lying, stealing, physical or verbal abuse, or other behaviors that may result if whining works for children and they escalate into these other areas.
The underlying principle of contribution is simple but effective. Contribution means that children are expected to work for the common good just as adult members of the family do. When children are made to feel they are important to the family by contributing and belonging in positive ways, they have no need to use negative behaviors such as whining to gain that feeling of importance.
These three methods work independently or together depending upon the situation. For example, consequences should be used routinely in response to whining. Any talking done around the setting up of consequences should be minimal and respectful in tone -- in other words, assertive. When the whining escalates into more serious misbehaviors that challenge the parents' values, we recommend adding the formula for assertiveness as well. Contribution combats all misbehavior and should be an expectation of every member of the family, including the very youngest.
Children who contribute have a positive sense of belonging, and empathy for others soon replaces the need to act out. From the youngest to the oldest, contribution allows everyone to feel important by working for the good of the family as a whole.
For those of you wondering why in the world children would want to provoke negative reactions in adults, we provide a model to help you understand the purpose of misbehavior and why changing your response works to stop whining. This model is rooted in the theories of two pioneering psychiatrists: Alfred Adler and Rudolph Dreikurs. The ideas we present are based on their techniques, which were developed from 1900 through the 1960s.
The commonsense approach that we provide here is, therefore, nothing new, but it is very much needed in these days of indulgent parenting when adults flip-flop between giving in and making idle threats to punish. Our three methods can be used with a child of any age -- and, dare we suggest it, any adult -- who whines.
Even very young children who do not yet understand words and sentences will understand tone, body language, and consistency. While these methods work with all age groups, the earlier you begin the easier your parenting job will be.
What we prescribe here is simple but not easy, because it requires you to think before you act or speak and requires you to have a plan of discipline that you follow consistently each time a whining incident occurs. The chapters cover the following topics:
We also provide a workbook with exercises you can use to teach yourself and your children new modes of communicating. We include a fourteen-day diary that you can use to chart your progress in responding to your children's whining and misbehavior. By taking careful notes you'll begin to analyze patterns of negative behavior in yourself and in your children. More important, by keeping a record of the changes you are making in your own responses, you'll begin to recognize improvements in your family's relationships.
How We Would Like You to Read This Book
First, we suggest that you read this book in one or two sittings so that you get a feel for the methods we suggest. Some of the ideas we're presenting will be new to you, and you'll need to think about how to go about making the changes we're suggesting.
You need not grasp every detail; just read for an overview of the problems and their solutions, and think of ways you can begin to try some of these approaches. It does help to think about the instances of whining you experience with your children and identify specific areas that are going to need the most work. The more thinking you do, the more easily you'll be able to plan and implement positive changes within your family.
Finally, once you've embarked upon your quest to rid your life of incessant whining, go back and read the chapters you feel are most helpful to you. This is your book. Write in the margins! Use the workbook and begin tracking your progress as you work toward eliminating whining behavior once and for all.
Copyright © 2000 by Audrey Ricker, Ph.D., and Carolyn Crowder, Ph.D.
Chapter One: The Definition of Whining
When adults are asked to define whining the answers usually sound like this:
"The begging that drives me crazy..."
"Crying and whimpering that makes me feel sorry for them..."
"Once it starts, I know it's not going to stop until I give in..."
What these parents are doing is describing what whining is like for them. They know that it upsets their equilibrium and that they feel manipulated. What parents need to understand is that whining is a technique children use to get their way. It is as simple as that -- and it is manipulative. Adults feel embarrassed, like Dan in the opening example, and defeated -- and often get very angry and resentful, especially when the children whine in public.
Here are examples of how children whine:
How Whining Gets Started
Children are not born knowing how to whine. But they usually hit upon it at an early age. They hear older brothers and sisters, children on television, or friends at preschool whining -- and sometimes they even hear it from Mom and Dad.
Among adults, whining usually takes the guise of complaints like "Look at all I've done for you, and I'm just asking you to do this one little thing for me..." Children try it themselves and quickly find out that whining works -- especially if they keep it up for a long enough time. They know parents will wear down and cave in!
Andrea is the mother of Katie, age three, and Kurt, age six. While Kurt is busily involved in school and soccer, little Katie is involved in whining just about all the time. Whenever her mother leaves the room or tries to put her down, Katie begins to whimper and complain.
"I don't want you to think I don't play with my daughter, but I can't even get a load of laundry out of the dryer without Katie whining. It makes me feel awful." Andrea sighs. "My pediatrician says she is having separation anxiety and will outgrow it in time, but I just can't stand the whining."
Andrea and her husband are particularly disappointed because they spent much of last summer doing special things with Katie in an attempt to lighten her moods and make her cheerful. They went to the beach and ZOO and played lots of games, but Katie whined her way through it all. She was unable to enjoy anything unless Andrea was right there with her, giving her 100 percent of her attention. "I couldn't even speak to anyone else without Katie whimpering," Andrea confides.
Andrea thinks that she must have neglected Katie in her infancy somehow, and that is what has made this child so dependent. "Maybe I spent too much time with Kurt and she was hurt by that," she muses. Andrea also wonders if the truth is just that she is a failure at mothering two children.
She notes that her neighbor has three children, including a daughter who is Katie's age and who rarely whines. Andrea wonders what people think. "I'll be having this great conversation with my neighbor in the backyard and it starts. Katie wants me to pick her up. I feel ashamed for having such a needy child."
Andrea also feels resentment. "I do so much for Katie. I cater to her most of the time. I can't even get away for a movie once in a while, because she goes into a total meltdown when I try to walk out the door."
The Negative Effects of Whining on Parents and Children
Katie whines to get her way. She has adopted what we refer to as a "mistaken" way of belonging. Children, like all of us, need to feel that they have a place of significance in the home -- and will find that place through either constructive or destructive means.
Whining makes Katie feel important and powerful, and she has learned to belong in this family by being the whimpering, dependent child, forever the "baby" of the family. Our chapter on contribution will explain how important it is that your children be encouraged to find a place through behaviors such as helping, assuming responsibilities, and thinking of others.
For right now, suffice it to say that Katie rules the roost with her "weakness." Whining works for her in that she gets what she wants and feels powerful. It is quite heady for a child to be able to elicit exasperation, anger, retaliation and, finally, giving in from a grown-up.
Katie will continue to whine and control in her bid for power and attention as long as her parents reinforce her behavior with the wrong responses.
For Katie, the ability to provoke her parents is a sign of her power. She finds a place in the family by controlling others. Katie knows at some level that her mother has doubts about what to do, and she exploits her mother's lack of confidence by appearing weak and dependent.
When Andrea gives in, she's responding not just to Katie's "tyranny of weakness" but also to her own self-doubts about her ability as a parent. Don't get us wrong -- we are not saying that Katie is deliberately thinking about and using these misbehaviors for the purpose of feeling powerful and important. She has merely hit upon these behaviors that bring her these powerful feelings, and so she repeats them as long as they work. That is why parental response is so important.
If allowed to continue, Katie's "mistaken" way of belonging can follow her into adulthood, becoming part of her basic approach to life. Manipulation of others through whining and a need to be the center of attention may hinder her success in all areas of life and will harm her chances to create mature, lasting relationships.
She may spend a lifetime feeling victimized by others because she never learned to be independent and forthright. Worse yet, she never learned to have empathy for others.
Other Dangers of Whining
Whining isn't something that goes away on its own. You do your child a great disservice when you think of whining as "only a stage" the child is going through. The effects of whining may be long-term and destructive to every member of the family. Here's why:
While it is true that some children may outgrow whining as they get older, this is the exception, not the rule. Misbehavior doesn't usually correct itself without pa-rental intervention. Children who give up whining on their own usually do so because they've found more efficient, but usually not more constructive, ways of getting their needs met. These children may turn to dangerous behaviors like lying, stealing, or sneaking out after hours. Their bids for attention (which they no longer get from whining) can even involve self-destructive behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse.
Sometimes children give up whining because they are made fun of once too often by other kids who love to mimic them. But don't think this technique works for parents. When you make fun of your child as a means of discipline, you cause hurt and teach your child that it is okay to hurt others and to use revenge as a weapon.
Types of Whining
Whining takes many forms. See if you recognize any of these:
The Detail-Oriented Whine
"Mommy, you said you'd play two games of Go Fish and one game of pick-up sticks and read The Little Mermaid twice if I was good while you were on the phone. I was good, wasn't I?"
The child recites promises made by her mother to get her to behave while Mom was on the phone. The parent made a serious mistake in trying to manipulate her daughter into good behavior, and now she faces the daunting task of following through on her promises. Her daughter is already whining and gearing up for a fight.
The Negotiation Whine
"I promise you I'll do all my homework Sunday night if you'll just buy me that new computer game I want." After you've already said no to the computer game, the child tries to wear you down by negotiating, with promises of good behavior in return for what he wants. The whining is escalating, even though it may appear that the child is offering a reasonable solution.
The Desperation Whine
"Please buy me this outfit for the school party. I have to have it or else all the kids will think I'm weird. I can't possibly wear the one you already bought!" The child conveys frantic worry and leans on the parents to rescue her. The implication is that a "good" parent will provide what the child so desperately needs in order to be part of the peer group and stave off the humiliation of being different. It is only "bad" parents who don't care enough about their child to rush out and buy what the child wants when the child is suffering.
The Self-Pitying Whine
"I can't go out for soccer because I can't do it. I'm just no good at it." The parents feel helpless and sorry for their child. Their hearts break as they wonder what to say and do in response. If parents agree with the child, they're admitting the child is deficient. If they disagree, they worry that they may be putting the child in a situation that will result in failure. It is the proverbial "rock and a hard place." When parents don't know which way to go, they give in, allowing the child to dictate what will happen next.
The Theatrical Whine
Almost all whining has a touch of drama. "I have to go to Aunt Joan's this weekend to get that sweater I left over there. Jessica wants to borrow it and she'll never be my friend again if I don't get it to her!" Such whining can quickly proceed to backtalk like "You have to take me now. I need this and you never do anything that's important to me." Parents usually succumb to this type of manipulation just so the child will be quiet.
Bear in mind that the above examples are typical of the types of whining that older, more verbal children engage in. Very young children who cannot yet use language have their own system of whimpering, sniffling, and crying to attempt to get their way. It is all whining, and parents should have a plan about how to respond to it.
Giving in to Whining Doesn't Work
Many people might say that Katie's behavior in the earlier example should be given in to, because it is a true cry for more quality time with Andrea. Working moms like Andrea may believe their busy schedules and time away from their children necessitate giving in to whining.
But you notice that when Andrea gives Katie what she wants, the problem doesn't disappear. In fact, the whining seems to increase. "The more time I spend with Katie, the more dependent she becomes and the less self-sufficient. I don't know what else to do, because her whining and whimpering gets me every time. I feel so bad for her."
The problem here is not that Andrea gives her daughter too little time or is a bad mother. The problem is that she gets hooked into guilt feelings (her vulnerable spot) and cannot figure out how to free herself. While she knows better intellectually, Andrea reacts to every whine as a legitimate cry for help that she as a mother must not ignore.
Giving in to whining keeps it going, because children learn that if they continue long enough and loud enough, parents will eventually succumb to the pressure. Therefore we adults need to respond very differently. We often give in after we have yelled, lectured, or ridiculed and thereby think we have "disciplined" them. As children become more adept at whining, they refine their skills, increasing their chances of being successful in manipulating to get what they want.
Olivia, thirteen, states that she argues with almost everything her parents say, as do many of her friends. "When Mom tells me that I can't go out until I do my math -- I hate doing it -- I usually say, 'Mother, you know I do math better when I wake up in the morning and have my Diet Coke.'
"She says, 'How many times do I have to tell you no soda in the morning?' and we're off and running. The math, the Diet Coke, going out with my friends for a pizza or whatever, it doesn't matter.
"I argue and whine and whine and argue until Mom is so cross-eyed that she can't remember which argument to stick to most and so she says, 'Just go, and no more Diet Cokes in the morning.' If I'm tired of the arguing and whining, I say, 'Okay, I promise' and then just do it anyway."
The argument whine is a disrespectful way for an older child to try to assert independence, and indulging it is bad for the child. This cycle of disrespectful behavior -- whining and arguing, and the eventual giving in -- wears everyone out and keeps the household in turmoil.
Olivia's mother states, "It's like I'm living in a bad movie. Nothing really happens and nobody ever has a good time." What is described here is pretty much anarchy. Mom has provided no structure to deal with Olivia's misbehavior.
What Children Whine About Most
Most parents have the same problems with their kids. Nearly every child tries whining at some point, and here are the most common areas that kids whine about:
Television and computer limits
Sharing with siblings
Wanting or not wanting to go to certain places
Where to sit in the car
This isn't a complete list, but we're sure that many of you have experienced problems that involve all these arenas of family interaction. How did we get to the point where whining is so common?
Putting Whining in Perspective
When people think of the "good old days in parenting," they are often referring to autocratic methods of discipline that used to work in a culture where the belief was that "children should be seen and not heard." The irony here is that most of us were raised that way and don't want our children to experience the same ironhanded parental authority model in which children did as they were told because they feared their parents.
In this "golden age" of parenting, adults ruled the roost (usually Dad was in first place) and meted out spankings, lectures, humiliation, and retribution to make sure that children behaved.
With the advent of a more permissive, free society in the 1960s, many parents used the exact opposite of the old autocratic methods and became more and more indulgent with their children. At the same time, children began asserting their rights, concluding that they should not tolerate hitting and yelling from adults. We are now witnessing the phenomenon of children going to court to "divorce" their parents, often because of physical or verbal abuse they've suffered.
Several other changes have influenced the parent/child relationship since that time. All forms of media are readily available. Children are targeted by manufacturers and advertisers and are pulled toward certain products, which then play a major role in the whining game.
Children may be convinced they must have certain products in order to be like everybody else, and they'll whine endlessly until their parents succumb to the pressure to buy them. Today's children also watch more television, see more films, and are exposed to more forms of popular culture where bad behavior may be modeled. All of these things can contribute to problems between parent and child. (In fact, the American Academy of Pediatricians recently recommended that parents remove televisions and personal computers from children's bedrooms, and that no children under the age of two be exposed to television.)
How should parents react when they are told, often by experts, that the constant barrage of advertising and media causes whining and misbehavior in their children? Some experts claim that studies show that aggression is linked to violent movies and television. But it is very difficult to prove causality for any kind of behavior. That is why we prefer to look for the purpose of the behavior -- what does whining bring to children?
While media hype can make it more difficult for parents to teach and discipline their children, parents are still the most powerful influences for their children, even through the teen years. The best response you can have to these potentially negative influences is a strong, mutually respectful relationship with your child. Children need a firm foundation in life, and it must come through your parenting.
It is much more respectful for parents to convey to their children that when they whine, they are making a decision to do so. It does none of us any good to make excuses for our own or our children's behavior. They are not merely little victims of the "bad" culture, and such a belief is disrespectful in its premise. They are whining because the technique has worked with their parents in the past, not because the children have seen examples of whining on television and are compelled to mimic the behavior.
"Monkey see, monkey do" is no excuse for whining or any other negative behavior. To adopt the attitude that children are only mimicking actions they see on television, as opposed to making choices of their own, lets both children and parents off the hook. In neither case is there an emphasis on taking responsibility for actions and making a concerted effort to do things differently.
How do you as a parent respond to the media? Do you indulge in a buying frenzy when you watch advertising on television? If you do, then your children will, too. Do you know what your children are watching and listening to? Part of your parental role is to interpret popular culture and take a stand as needed so that your children will be able to do the same.
Well-raised children are less vulnerable to media hype or peer pressure, because their parents have schooled them to resist being manipulated by advertising and to feel good about themselves without succumbing to a materialistic lifestyle. These children have a strong sense of who they are and how they belong without having to have a particular stuffed animal or a logo-bearing pair of shoes. Sometimes it seems that parents buy all this stuff as a substitute for spending time with their children. Good parenting takes a large investment of time.
Many parents have indulged children to the point of creating such tyrants that no one wants to be around them. These parents do not trust their own common sense when it comes to raising their children. They give in constantly to their children's demands, rationalize their bad behaviors away, and generally indulge and appease in order to have "peace" in the family. The sad thing is that indulging children doesn't achieve harmony for long. Very soon the bad behavior begins again. It works too well for the children to just give it up on their own.
Many parents are afraid to assume the leadership role of setting limits and educating their children -- or they simply don't know how because they were not taught these things when young themselves. It is easy to fall back on the behaviors we remember our parents using when we were small. Change is difficult, and sometimes adults are just too tired to argue or too preoccupied with other concerns to provide the time it takes to discipline a child in a respectful way.
Most parenting reactions are just that -- reactive -- with no general plan based on knowing how children need to be treated in order to grow into responsible adults.
Copyright © 2000 by Audrey Ricker, Ph.D., and Carolyn Crowder, Ph.D.