Q: Hi Miss Faith! I’m loving your blog – really wonderful, practical advice, Thank You! One thing I would LOVE for you to address is whining. It’s driving me and my friends of toddlers (mostly girls...) nutty. I reaaaaaallllly waaaaaannnnnt that dresss....... I’m hunnnngrrrrrrryyyy what can I haaaaaave.... You know. What have you found to be the best way to handle this?
A: In my experience, children whine because they are tired, or because they need more attention (or a different type of attention) than they're getting. I'll look first at ways to minimize whining, then I'll look at what to do once the whining starts.
Provide Rest During the Day
If your child is whining, they may well need more sleep than they're getting; the American Academy of Pediatrics says that 3-year-olds should sleep 10-13 hours out of each 24. In addition to this, children need significant portions of “down-time” throughout the day, where they can rest and re-charge. These are especially important to schedule in if your child is no longer napping, and might involve reading books in a quiet space, snuggling together and singing softly or telling soft stories, or children coloring pictures while you do something quiet nearby. Let your energy levels drop, darken the space a little, and avoid eye contact so your child can really be restful during this time. I recommend scheduling several of these into the day, 20 minutes at a time if your child still naps, with a longer one (40 minutes) in place of naptime if your child no longer naps. If your child is in a morning play-program, try not to schedule much activity in the afternoon, to give them time to come down from that high-energy environment. If your child is well-rested, you may see the whining drop off significantly.
Note: watching videos or TV does not not work for down-time, as the medium itself is not actually restful: among other things, watching screens (TV or computer) suppresses the body's production of melatonin, and makes it hard to fall asleep, which is why we can watch TV all night long even though our eyes are scratchy and we know we're exhausted.
Once the Whining Starts
Show Them How
Once a child starts whining, there are a few tricks you can have in your bag. The first question is whether they are asking for something that you would give them if they weren't whining. If it is, you can cue them to ask in a more appropriate voice. Don't just tell them to ask you differently; model what you'd like them to say, and how to say it. For example, if your child whines, “I waaant you to carrrrry meeeeee,” you can simply say, “Mom, will you carry me please?” Chances are good that your child will repeat your words and tone exactly. Then you can respond to her request: “Yes. I will carry you when I've put the baby into her stroller.” Or, “My hands are full right now. I'll stop for a moment and give you a snuggle, then we can walk together to that bench at the corner.” If your child doesn't repeat what you say when you cue her, wait for a moment, then repeat it again. Usually that will do the trick, unless your child is too tired. If she's too tired to say it, you might say, “I can tell you're thinking it. I bet next time you'll be able to say it yourself,” and respond as if she had asked nicely.
I'm not an advocate of time-outs for whining; I'm an advocate of time-in. This is because whining is usually a result of kids needing something (rest, attention) that they're not getting. So having some love poured into them for a few minutes is often just what they need “Wow, it looks like you could really used a snuggle. Let's go sit in the armchair together for a few minutes.” Sit together and pour love into her until you can feel her relax. Then she'll probably be ready to ask you in a normal voice, and respond when you cue her.
I had a little boy at Rainbow Bridge who was almost four. Several times a week he would get whinier and whinier as the morning progressed, until he was ready to fall apart. As it got bad, I'd say, “Let's go to the nap-room and snuggle in the rocking chair for a few minutes.” It would only take a minute away from the other children for me to be able to transform my annoyance into compassion for this little guy, and for him to soak in the quiet and the love, and relax. After a few times of doing this, I started saying to him, “You know, we can do this anytime. You can just ask. You can say, 'Miss Faith, I need a snuggle,' and I'll bring you right down here.” After a few more times, he asked me for a snuggle. He asked two or three more times, and then he never had to do it again.
I'm not saying this will happen for your child, but this technique is a little magic. Some parents have asked me if this isn't rewarding bad behavior instead of punishing it, but I disagree. Children fall apart because they're not getting something they need, and they don't have the vocabulary to tell you what. We get good behavior from our children by seeing them as their highest selves, setting them up to achieve living into that self, then unwaveringly expecting it. Children want to live into it too; if they are unable to, it's either because they need some sort of support (more rest, more consistency in their lives), or because our expectations are not age-appropriate.
How to Say “No”
If your child is whining for something that you are not going to give in to (they want a candy bar at the store, they want to eat cereal for every meal, they want to rollerskate in the house), then your tactics may be a bit different.
The first tip is, never use the word “No” to say “No”! Try one of these, instead:
1) Tell them when they CAN do what they want. If they want cereal for lunch, but they already had it for breakfast, you might say, “You can have cereal again tomorrow.” If it's raining and they want to rollerskate in the house, you might say, “You can rollerskate outside when the rain stops.”
2) Give them an alternate set of choices. “You can have cereal again tomorrow. Right now, you can have noodles, or stir-fry.” Or, “You can rollerskate outside when the rain stops. For now, you can color with crayons, or make a fort.” In this last case, it may seem like you're setting up a false dichotomy, and in some ways you are, but the object is to move their minds away from the rollerskates and get their creative juices flowing. They may well come up with some third option at this point that you both can be satisfied with.
3) If they continue to insist on their first, inappropriate choice, continue to avoid the word “no”, as that just causes them to dig in their heels. Instead, acknowledge their love for the thing that they want, or the desire, and then circle back to when they can do it later. “You really love that cereal, don't you. You can have it tomorrow, don't worry,” Or, “You really wish you could ride those rollerskates RIGHT NOW. I hear that. You can ride them when the rain stops. Right now I'm going to build a fort in the dining room. Did you know that when I was little, I always used to build forts when it was raining?” Walk to the linen closet to get the sheets.
4) And if THAT doesn't work, pull out your trump card, and take them on an imaginative journey. In fact, depending on the situation, you might move into the imaginative journey straight away.
The Imaginative Journey
Taking a child ourneyon an imaginative journey when they're whining for something might look something like this:
Child: I reeeally waaaant that dreeeeessss!
Adult: That really is a beautiful, dress, isn't it! Look at all the ruffles. If you wore a dress like that, you would look like a princess! Where would you live if you were a princess in that dress? (If they don't know, you can continue) I bet you would live in a castle where everything was made of gold and silver, and where you would have a bed made of feathers and tiny little dogs who loved you and followed you around wherever you went (etc. etc).
Taking a child on an imaginative journey like this changes the dynamic from them wanting something and you saying no, into a situation where both of you are on the same imaginative page, creating something together. It can work for something as prosaic as a candy bar:
Child: I reeeeally waaaant that cannnndy baaaarrrrr!
Adult: That candy bar sure looks delicious, doesn't it? If you had that candy bar, what would you do with it? What if you had a hundred candy bars like that? Who would you give one to? (wait for answers, and respond). To Sam? That's a good idea, I bet he would love that! I would give one to Grandma. Do you think she'd like that? (etc. etc.).
You can continue this conversation as long as you'd like, and slowly drift away from the actual object that started the conversation. This tactic is especially useful if you're out shopping, when kids often get over-stimulated and don't get enough of the “right” kind of attention from their adults.
And finally, having a consistent schedule where children know when things are going to happen, and how, will help cut down the whining.