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Reality Check: Stop Whining

Q. We're at our wits' end with our preschooler's whining. How can we get him to stop?

We, too, have a whiner at home. She began at age 3 and is still at it (though not as much) at age 5. But just as she has two years of experience, so do her father and I, and now we can see the warning signs of an impending attack and head it off. We also know that modern nostrums, such as reminding her to "use your words," just up her volume, and yelling at her creates a big scene.

The bad news? There's no sure cure. But the good news is that there are many approaches to try -- and one or more of them (depending on the day and the mood) may do the trick.

  • Find the "why" in the whining.
  • Identify any real cause of his behavior. He may be hungry or tired, getting sick, or possibly just bored. Even if you can't fix it, at least you'll understand.

  • Don't make vague promises. If you find yourself saying "In a minute, sweetie" too often, you're asking for trouble. "Try 'We'll play together in exactly six minutes,'" says Marguerite Kelly, coauthor of The Mother's Almanac and grandmother of eight. "That way, your child will know you're taking him seriously and won't try to get your attention by being annoying."

  • Name that whiner. Our friends Carol and Ray have given whining a persona. The fictional fusspot who invades their children's bodies is named Wendy (she even has her own silly song), and when their daughters start to whine, they say, "All right, Wendy, I hear you," or hum a few bars of her theme song, and the girls generally quit.

  • Don't make him feel ashamed. While humor can work to lessen whining, mockery can't, and it may demoralize a child. So don't imitate him. Instead, act surprised and confused by the behavior. We ask our daughter to go to another room and please return with "the real Eleanor, because surely this girl is an impostor!" This lets her avoid the humiliation of an outright scolding and turns a dreary scene into a game.

    Because Ellie is our second child, my husband and I take comfort in the knowledge that this behavior, too, shall pass. If all else fails, remember that time is on your side.

    Trisha Thompson is a contributing editor to PARENTING magazine and a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk.

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