When Your Kid Won’t Stop Whining

Strategies for dealing with whiny behavior in children

Me to my whiny five-year-old, facing off in the kitchen: “I’m sorry, but the kitchen is the No-Whining Zone. If you want to whine about something, you’re going to go have to do it in your bedroom. You can whine all you want in there.”

My five-year-old, heaving a deep sigh and heading toward her bedroom: “Okay.”

Me to myself: Oh, that was clever. Now she’ll leave me alone, and she’ll quickly get bored without an audience for her complaints. THAT will teach her not to whine.

Several days later . . .

My five-year-old, standing beside her closet, sniffling as she looks at the clothes I’m holding out for her: “Mommyyyyy, I don’t waaaant to wear that to school! I don’t liiiiiike it!”

Me: “Hey, what have I told you about whining?”

Five-year-old, her eyes widening in exaggerated innocence: “But Mommy, we’re in my room! You said I could whine in here!”

Me, my mouth flopping open. “Uhhhh . . .”

So much for my clever parenting strategy. Epic fail.

Whining is one of the tricky ailments that can plague our families for years, if we don’t deal with it head-on. And head-on means being firm, consistent, and more persistent than persistent whiners.

 How about this lovely scenario—does it sound familiar?

Kid: “Mommy, can I have some candy?”

Mom, distracted, trying to cook dinner while bouncing a fussy baby on one hip: “Uh, no.”

Kid, going squinty-eyed: “Why not?”

Mom, stirring a pot, yelps as spaghetti sauce splatters. Long delay before she answers, in which kid becomes hopeful. Eventually Mom remembers she was having a conversation: “Because it’s close to dinner time.”

Kid’s nostrils flare. Brief pause while kid regroups.

Mom attempts to put baby in bouncer. Baby begins to shriek.

Kid, sensing a moment of distraction and weakness, tries another tactic. Kid bats eyelashes and clasps hands beneath chin, flashing angelic smile:

“But it’s not that close to dinner! I prooooomise I’ll still eat dinner! Pleeeeeease, Mommy?”

Mom mutters to herself, picks up the baby again and starts hunting for a pacifier. Eventually she says, “The answer is still no. No candy.”

Kid, angelic face melting off, replaced by pink-cheeked irritation, bordering on anger: “But I waaaaaaant candy! Pleeeeease can I have candy? Why not? You let my brother have candy all the time! I never get candy! I never get to do what I want!”

Mom: Bites tongue to keep from saying something that gets her kicked out of heaven. 

Kid: Descends into moaning, sniffling, and wailing. This could go on for hours.

Sound familiar? Scenes like this have definitely played out in our house before.

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Reasons kids whine

Some children speak most of their sentences with a whiny tone. Every word is shrouded in woe-is-me shadow, as if they are constantly fighting against a world determined to ruin their life. But if we don’t deal with their tone and—more importantly—their attitude, they keep doing it. Like, forever.

Some kids are naturally more whiny than others:

  • maybe they are more sensitive or emotional;

  • maybe they have an over-developed sense of fairness;

  • maybe they hate not getting their way;

  • maybe they tend to be ungrateful for what they have and what you give;

  • maybe they don’t feel that their objections or feelings are heard.

Whatever their reason, we do them no favors by allowing them to persist in a whiny, the-world-is-against-me attitude. Remember That Girl in high school, the one who complained about everything? Sometimes known as Debbie Downer? We don’t want our kids to grow up to be That Girl!

I have a theory about kids who become “long-term whiners”: They become that way when we let them. If their whining is either rewarded or allowed, they keep it up. The earlier we show our kids that whining is a dead-end, the sooner they will stop.

Here are two mistakes we often make in dealing with whining: 

1-Accidentally rewarding whininess by giving kids what they want, without stopping to address their whiny tone and the attitude behind it. I usually do this when I’m distracted and in a hurry, and not paying full attention to the way the child is speaking. (I pick up the whiny toddler without making her stop crying and ask nicely; I hand food first to the kid who complains the loudest and most convincingly about imminent starvation; I tie the four-year-old’s shoes without reminding her to stop rolling around the floor moaning and just ask me nicely for help.)

2-Ignoring (and therefore allowing) “background whining.” What’s background whining? It’s when a kid is off in another part of the room, moaning and complaining. Because they aren’t doing it to our face, we don’t notice it as much. After a while, it just becomes part of the background noise in our household. We can’t even hear it anymore.

We can avoid these mistakes by remembering two simple principles:

  • When we reward whining, kids keep doing it.

  • When we ignore whining, we allow it by default.

The attitude behind the tone

Persistent whining can be an outward symptom of an inward problem: a heart problem. It can be a symptom of ingratitude, or resentment, or selfishness, and sometimes even rebellion.

Keep in mind that disappointment is natural and normal, and we shouldn’t expect our kids to jump for joy whenever we say “no.” But there is a line they can’t cross. If their disappointment descends into whining and complaining, then they’ve crossed that line. Children have to learn to acknowledge disappointment, but then choose acceptance and a respectful attitude anyway.

God calls children to honor their parents. When children whine and moan and wail and huff and stomp about our decisions, they are not honoring us. In a way, they are resisting our authority by complaining about our rules and decisions. Some kids are even trying to wear down our resolve and manipulate us into changing our minds so they can have their way.

Remember, it is our God-given responsibility to say “no” sometimes, and to teach our children about boundaries. It is their responsibility to submit to our authority and accept our decisions. They won’t always like our decisions, but they do have to accept them with a respectful attitude. Keep this in mind: If they can’t accept our rules and authority with a submissive, surrendered spirit, how will they ever submit to God’s rules and authority? (Because they won’t always like God’s rules, either!)

Here are 7 simple strategies for dealing with whininess:

1-You can begin teaching toddlers not to whine pretty early (think 15-18 months for most kids). Teach them either to say or sign “please” when they want something. That one simple step will make a big difference! And don’t reward their whining by picking them up or giving them what they want when they cry, pitch a fit, or demand it rudely. Teach them to ask as calmly as they can, and to say “please.” They won’t do this perfectly, of course, but the sooner you implement it and the more consistent you are, the more quickly they will learn.

2-For little ones (ages two to six), implement a lot of “do-overs.” I have often told my kids, “No, you don’t get what you want when you ask like that. Try it like this . . .” And then I demonstrate how to ask in a pleasant tone of voice. They might have to try again five times before they finally get it right! We usually end up laughing while we’re doing this, because I make it silly—“Oh lovely and generous Mommy who is the best cook in the world, may I please have one of your divine brownies?”—but it’s a lighthearted way to get the message across.

3-This trick works great for younger kids who are persistent whiners—repeat offenders. When they ask you for something with a whiny, complaining voice, try this: Tell them that because they whined, they don’t get what they want right now. Set a timer for 2-10 minutes (depending on the child’s age), and then when the timer goes off, they can make their request again, with a different attitude.

4-With persistent whiners, don’t just address the behavior. Take your teaching to the heart level. Discuss their attitude: What’s the root of the whining? Older kids may need to discuss their feelings or questions, but then help them choose a different attitude and perspective.

5-Encourage gratitude. The more grateful our kids are, the less they will whine. (Need ideas for how to do this? Here’s a fantastic post about 11 Ways to Raise a Grateful Child.)

6-Don’t try to make everything fair all the time. Kids who expect fairness and equality with siblings or neighbors or classmates will end up constantly feeling cheated, and will end up with a chip on their shoulder.

7-Listen to yourself, too. Kids need to feel heard. If you are an overly authoritative parent, and you rarely explain or discuss your rules and decisions with your older children, you may be frustrating them. If you don’t take the time to talk them through difficult decisions and rules that they don’t like or understand, then you may be frustrating them. If you don’t let them explain how they feel and ask some respectful questions, you may be frustrating them. The Bible tells us not to exasperate our children (Ephesians 6:4). Now to be clear: These are NOT the kinds of conversations you should have with a two- or three-year-old—you cannot and should not attempt to reason with kids that young—but with older kids, a good discussion may be in order. Sometimes “Because I said so” is a perfectly fine answer. Kids have to accept our right to make choices “just because,” without justifying our every decision. But at other times, an explanation will go a long way in helping an older child’s attitude.

The Take-Away:

Take a listen to the tone in your house this week. Is there a lot of in-your-face whining, or maybe too much background whining? Don’t just let it go. Remember Proverbs 16:24: “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Here’s to happy homes filled with gracious words and grateful people! Here’s to entire houses that are Whine-Free Zones!

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How to Raise Respectful Kids

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