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A Beginner's Guide to Discipline

Little Banshee

Screeching and whining

One day I was counseling a mother about normal baby behavior when her baby started yelling. By reflex, Mom yelled, "Stop that yelling!" We both laughed when we realized how silly this sounded. Screeching  -- which peaks at about age 1  -- isn't the baby's attempt to be annoying; he's just testing his siren to see how many decibels it can reach and how his audience responds. Maybe for this reason, he saves his loudest shrieks for the quietest places.

Teach your child what voice level you'll accept: "Give Daddy your nice voice." Or model a softer voice for him by whispering. When our daughter Lauren started screaming, we took her to the yard and jumped and yelled together as a game. The next time she started shrieking in the house, we repeated the outdoor act. After that, whenever she started to scream, we quickly interjected in a soft voice, "Only yell on the grass." We planted in her mind  -- at an age when babies make mental notes of what activities go where  -- that loud noise belongs outdoors.

Early screams and yells have shock value, causing all within earshot to stop and pay attention. Similarly, babies whine because it works. If that's the only way your baby can break through to you, whining will probably continue. Children need to learn that pleasant sounds get pleasant reactions. When your baby addresses you in a normal voice, quickly respond in kind. Sometimes babies need reminding about which voice gets the best response. As soon as your child starts to whine, get her to change her communication channel by interjecting, "Sweetie, you have such a nice voice. Use your nice voice." Eventually, you'll be able to head off an incipient whine just by saying, "Nice voice, please." Besides learning that screams won't get your attention, your child's language skills will improve, and yelling will become a sound of the past.


Contributing editor William Sears, M.D., is the author of 30 books on childcare, including The Successful Child.