Baby signing “please.” Source: parentingpink.com

After my post last week about kids doing what works, I’ve gotten a few comments and questions about what to do with kids who whine. Whining is one of those things that can just grate on our nerves. But at the same time, if it goes on for too long, we get used to it and let it go until it gets worse!

The Ezzos say this about whining:

“Whining is an unacceptable form of communication that becomes annoying to the listener if left unchecked. Besides being obnoxious, it is often a subtle challenge to parental authority. Whining is a learned trait, not a warning of deep-seated, emotional problems,” (Growing Kids God’s Way, p. 191).

Lucas struggles with whining (as did I as a kid), so I have very real personal experience with this. The key to squelching whining is to understand why they do it. What is their motivation? If the child is a “glass half empty” kind of kid, whining and complaining simply come naturally. These are the kids who thrive on a routine and hate any disruptions to that routine. Surprises are never a good thing for these kids.

Whining also comes easily to kids who learn that it works. If you have ever given in to the whining, you are just encouraging him to do it again. For some parents, whining grates on their nerves so much that they’ll give the child whatever he wants just to make the whining stop. Not good.

Another reason kids whine is simply to communicate. This is true for kids who aren’t yet talking. Grunting, screeching and whining are their main forms of communication. The screeching is happy, grunting is neutral, and whining is unhappy. But this doesn’t mean that you have to accept the whining. Teaching other forms of communication is key.

So how do you work with a child to stop whining? How you respond will depend on the child’s age.

For kids under age 2.5 (non-verbal kids), teach sign language! I took a baby sign language class when William was a baby. He picked up on it very quickly and was signing by 7 months. Lucas did just as well. I taught them several signs but the ones they used most were please, more, all done, thank you, milk, eat, water, and change (as in change my diaper). You can pick up a few signs from the Internet or get a DVD on baby sign language. Make sure you learn from a video. It’s hard to understand from static pictures.

Now, one of my readers asked what to do if they still whine after you’ve taught them to sign. I can understand if a toddler needs you to look at him so he can sign. If that’s the case, I would work on teaching the child to say “mama.” William started saying it at 11 months, and he had a speech delay. Make “mama” your cue that the child will sign after he gets your attention. If you’ve done this and he’s still whining, it’s simply become a habit. If this is the case, give the child a stern comment telling him not to whine. Show him with your voice what whining sounds like. Remember, these kids understand much more than they can communicate. So teach him, and remember that it’s better to overestimate their understanding than to underestimate it.

Also be sure that your actions teach that whining is unacceptable. I remember holding Lucas in my arms while he would whine for something. I would swiftly put him down to indicate that his whining is unacceptable. My quick action shocked him into changing his behavior.

For kids over age 2.5 (verbal kids), they key to stopping whining is to not ignore it but to make them wait. You might try saying, “I can’t understand you when you use that voice,” and have them ask again. But this might not be enough to break the habit.┬áTypically, the whining comes in when they are asking you for something. Say the child is asking you for a cup of water in a whining voice. You would say, “I understand you’re thirsty, but since you asked in a whining voice, you will have to wait. I will set the timer for 5 minutes. When it beeps, you can come back and ask with a normal voice.”

Making them wait will have much more of an impact than simply telling them to ask their question over again. I’ve tried that, and Lucas just starts whining again. And ignoring it doesn’t work at all. You might think that ignoring the behavior would clue them in to the idea that whining doesn’t work, but as with everything in parenting, our kids only learn if we actively train them.

Another tactic with a verbal child is to have them acknowledge that whining is unacceptable. In the same way that we require our kids to verbalize submission by saying, “yes, mommy,” we can have them do so with whining. For example, you might respond to whining with the following dialogue: “Nathan, repeat after me, ‘Yes, mommy, no whining.'” The child repeats you and hears himself verbally agree to not whine. If he does this and continues to whine, the offense is direct disobedience, in which case a timeout (in isolation) is appropriate.

Now, if a child whines not when he’s asking for something but when you’re giving an instruction, your reaction would be very different. Getting a “But I doooon’t waaaan’t toooo,” after you’ve told a child to make his bed is simply unacceptable. Here, you would not make the child wait. You would stop the child immediately after the word “but” comes out of his mouth, put a finger over his lips, lean down to make eye contact and say, “Your only acceptable response right now is, ‘yes, mommy.'” At that point, the child says, “yes, mommy” and goes to make his bed. If he refuses, have him sit for a timeout and vow to yourself to work harder on first-time obedience. Yes, this is much more of an obedience issue than a whining issue.

I hope this helps. Let’s unite to rid the world of whining children! :)


  1. This was helpful. Thank you! Do you have any suggestions on how to teach a child to say “thank you”?

  2. Sign language can certainly help when teaching a child to say “thank you.” See this post: http://www.childwisechat.com/2012/11/09/signing-thank-you/

    Reminders are an unfortunate reality, at least until the child is old enough to remember on his/her own. Probably most important in this endeavor is teaching, on a moral level, the importance of gratitude. Find a time of non-conflict and snuggle together while you explain why we are grateful for things in our lives. I have a blog post coming out on Wednesday that discusses this very idea.

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