When it comes to torture, we could all learn a thing or two from kids. Who knows better than they how to extract most anything they want within minutes of applying the technique? I'm talking about whining, of course -- that grating mewling that causes us to do anything (anything!) just to make it go away. But you can break the habit. And the rewards of victory can be rich for both of you.
Why they do it: Early talkers whine like babies cry. Some experts say that whining tends to peak in a child's development when she's feeling out of control and overwhelmed -- emotions that pretty much sum up toddlerhood. She lacks the vocabulary to articulate her frustrations, and that whimpering is the natural default noise. Certain triggers, such as hunger and fatigue, can also cause breakdowns (true for kids of all ages), so keep that in mind the next time you take your toddler grocery shopping close to naptime.
How to stop it: Patience becomes the first rule when confronted with these early bouts of whining. When her son, Matthew, who's almost 3, melts down because he can't wait 10 more minutes for dinner, Rae Sullivan of Durham, North Carolina, gives him a little extra attention, like five minutes of lap or snuggle time. Those five minutes are well spent if it means she can finish cooking without another whinefest. Tossing him a few crackers to eat in the meantime doesn't hurt, either. (Parenting.com: When good kids mouth off )
"A lot of toddlers don't even know they're whining," says Sheila Oliveri, a mom of three and a nursery school teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. So give your little complainer an exaggerated demonstration: "Whyyyyyy are you taaaalkingg like thaaaaaat?" The result will be twofold: "You'll show her exactly how irritating whining is," says Oliveri, "and you may make her laugh, which will make her forget why she was complaining in the first place." Or try recording your child. Play it back to her so she knows what she sounds like, and work with her on better ways to ask for the things she wants or needs.
Why they do it: Like toddlers, the 3-to-5 set has a low threshold for frustration. Plus, they're going through a lot of changes -- such as starting school, facing a new baby sib, or graduating to a big-kid bed -- that make them extra hungry for your attention, even if it's the negative kind. ( Parenting.com: Moving to a big-kid bed)
How to stop it: The great thing about preschoolers is that they can still be distracted by a clever trick. For instance, Debbie Granick of St. Louis uses a "whine" cup, or bowl or bucket or whatever's at hand. "Whenever one of them starts, I say, 'Here, go pour out your whine and bring me your regular voice.' It gets a smile, or at least that 'Oh, Mom' look, and then they'll usually change their tone." She then thanks her child for using a "pleasant" voice. Or whisper your answer back. "You may have to whisper it several times, but your child will have to be quiet to hear you, and a lot of times he'll mimic your tone of voice," says Karen Shaffer, a mom of three in Highland, California.
By the time they're 4, most kids are able to understand that their behavior has consequences. So you can start using the "I can't understand you when you whine" technique. "When my children complain, I say, 'I'm sorry, but when you talk in that voice, I can't understand anything you're saying. Use your normal voice and I'll try to listen to you.' Then I ignore them until they start to comply," says Audrey Smith, a mom of two in Long Beach, California. It works, she says, but you have to be as consistent as possible. And that's not easy, as we all know. Who among us hasn't caved in? Trouble is, if your child sees you can be broken, he'll simply up the ante, and your whining problem will be worse.
Besides being consistent, look for ways to reinforce the behavior you do want, like thanking him when he repeats his request in a polite tone.
Why they do it: Besides whining when they're tired or hungry, kids grumble when they're asked to do things they don't want to do (insert your chore of choice) or when they're bored. Whining is learned behavior, and by the time a kid is in elementary school, she's a pro.
How to stop it: Some moms swear by sending their child to the "whine" room as soon as she starts. Sending her away -- to the corner of the living room, say, and letting her vent aloud to herself -- spares you from having to listen to it and may help the offender understand what she sounds like.
Shaffer has another tactic when her school-age kids start in. "Every whine costs them a nickel, to be deposited in a special jar," she says. "Then we give the money to the charity box at church on Sunday." When you're out in public, you can head off most whining by establishing some rules before you leave. My two kids know that there's every possibility of a small candy or sticker purchase if they make Mommy's trip to Target as pleasant as possible. They also know that the moment they start complaining in that tone of voice, the deal's off. Sometimes my 5-year-old slips up, but my 8-year-old has this rule down cold.
It bears keeping in mind that everyone whines -- moms and dads, too. But our kids model their behavior on ours, so the next time you're griping about soccer-practice schedule, take a minute to listen to yourself and then go put a nickel in the whine jar. Your child will be impressed.