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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You might also enjoy:

How to Raise Respectful Kids

Is It Time for a Showdown with Your Kid?

13 Back-to-School Scriptures for Kids

On Pinkeye, Lice, and Love

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How We Helped Our Son Overcome a Gaming Obsession


When kids won't stop gaming via @lizzylife0121

This is the story of a boy whose brains got eaten by digital zombies, and how his parents fought the zombies and reclaimed their son.

When our son was two, he discovered the joy of puzzles. He could hardly talk, but every morning he woke up bouncing with excitement in his crib, lisping, “Pizzoo, pizzoo!” That was our first hint that this was one focused, single-minded little boy.

When kids love puzzles and games

 

When he turned three, he began to collect every Thomas the Train engine and Transformer toy he could find. At four, he moved on to Legos. He wrote to Santa and asked for his first-ever Lego set. The wait for Christmas morning almost killed him. A few days before Christmas, he turned to me, clutching his tattered-and-taped-together Lego catalogue in hand. In anguish, he gritted his teeth and moaned, “I can’t stop thinking about Legos!” Poor sweet boy. His intensity can be a wonderful strength—he’s passionate and focused, diligent and hard-working—but of course, it can also be a weakness, especially where games are concerned.

Thomas the Train obsession

So last year when my husband got an iPad, and casually introduced our kids to the game Plants Vs. Zombies, maybe we should have anticipated that our son could become obsessed, but we didn’t. It’s not like the iPad even belonged to our son—he didn’t have unlimited access to it. But even so, in a matter of weeks, we had a problem. He became consumed. Time limits didn’t help: If we gave him half an hour a day to play, he spent the other 23 hours and 30 minutes thinking about the games, strategizing how to win them, and planning when he wanted to use his next half-hour of play time. His behavior and attitude changed. He turned inward, and got lost in his own mind and in a digital world.

Something had to change.

The Plan

We decided a total break from gaming was in order for all of the kids. (For us, that meant a break from games on Kevin’s iPad. We didn’t own any game systems.) The kids were not in trouble; they hadn’t done anything wrong; this was not a punishment. Our hope was that this break would allow our son to disconnect his mind from the electronic world, to reclaim some of his other interests and find some new ones, and to engage in a more meaningful way with the rest of the family.

The key to this whole experiment was the indefinite time period. It wasn’t enough to take a break for a week or a month—because all that would have done was get our son counting days until he’d get his beloved games back. He needed to be completely set free. Once the games were no longer an option, he would have to let them go altogether. He would be set free to move on, mentally and emotionally.

The Talk (no, not that one!)

We called a family meeting, and had The Talk about taking a break from iPad games. Even though there were a few tears shed, they turned into the good kind.

We started by talking about King David, and how he spent his boyhood years outside and in training, learning to kill lions and save sheep and pray and sing and just be close to God. We talked about how you can’t learn those things by playing computer games. You have to be outside, using your imagination and your heart and your voice and your creativity. We explained that God made each one of our kids special and gifted, and that he has big dreams for who they become and how he can use them. What fun we had talking about each child’s unique, wonderful gifts! And then we explained that they won’t become the people God intended them to be by spending all their time watching cartoons, or trying to defeat zombies on the iPad. (Meanwhile, the children were wiggling and laughing and being ridiculous, but somehow listening, too.)

When we got to the crux of the issue—the indefinite break from iPad games—our daughters immediately leapt to their feet and began exercising (?!), and our son began to cry. But we spent a lot of time talking to him and encouraging him, explaining how talented God made him, but that his gifts will be squandered if he spends his best mental energy learning to defeat digital zombies. We made this so positive, and in a few minutes, we watched a light turn on inside our son.

It was amazing, one of those epic parental moments you remember forever. He heard what we were saying—how God has great plans for him, and how even though he’s a boy, he can already start preparing himself to fulfill those plans. He can do that by having fun playing and learning and growing; by learning to play sports and have friends and build things. (Meanwhile, there was even more wiggling and exercising and general ridiculousness, but somehow there was a lot of listening, too.)

This was a Big Night for our family. A night when we decided to live intentionally—not just individually, but as a group. A night when Kevin and I more fully grasped what God intends for our children, and what our role is in helping them get there. A night when we recognized God’s purposes for us. A night when our entire family committed to growing and loving and living life to the full—not wasting our lives on stupid things, but being present, and being ready for God to use us as he sees fit. We decided to live our lives on purpose. We decided to grow, and to work together to become the individuals—and the family—God intends for us to be. (Wiggling and laughing and being ridiculous all along the way.)

When kids won't stop gaming via @lizzylife0121

The Changes

Within hours of our family devotional, we felt like we had our son back. A fog had lifted, and he’d awoken from a coma whose power we hadn’t fully understood. When he came home from school the next day, for the first time in weeks, he talked my ear off about school. He happily played outside with his sisters, built things with Legos, and laughed and laughed and laughed. We were flabbergasted—we hadn’t expected such dramatic change so quickly. For our girls, we didn’t notice much difference; the iPad had never really been a problem for them. But we were taking this break, united as a family, for our son—and it turned out to be the best family decision we could have made. Overall, our kids spent a lot of time playing outside, playing creatively, and even playing the piano. Our family became an even louder and more active—and yet more peaceful—place to be.

DSC_0031

The Follow-Up

Our total break from gaming lasted about three months. Honestly, at first I resisted the idea of ever letting the kids play games again. (I know, I can be a little dramatic.) But the more Kevin and I talked, the more he helped me to be realistic. Our children are growing up in a technology-rich world. One of the best gifts we parents can give our children is the wisdom and self-control they will need to handle technology wisely for the rest of their lives. Children need opportunities to practice using technology in its various forms while they are still at home with us, under our supervision. We need to provide God-centered training in how to handle devices of all kind in positive ways. We need to teach them to use technology is ways that promote relationships rather than hinder them. And at our kids’ ages, games can provide a manageable introduction into that lesson. (I’m still not convinced that a game system would improve our family life, and so we have no plans to get one. For now, we’re letting the kids “practice” using technology by playing some iPad and computer games.)

We followed up with another family devotional, centered around the verse, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (You can find several devotions on this scripture when you sign up for the LizzyLife newsletter. It’s included as a free gift with sign-up.) We talked (again) about how we don’t want our minds to be so full of iPad or computer games (or email or Facebook or texting for the grown-ups!) that there’s no room for God or for people. We told the kids we were willing to give the iPad games another try, within certain clear parameters.

The Plan

Here’s the thing about our “plan” for technology: It’s an experiment, not a lifetime commitment. It’s working for now, but we will continue to tweak it as our children mature and their needs change.

When we laid out the plan, we explained that each kid would have their own time limit that is appropriate for them as an individual. (Sometimes we cater too much to kids’ over-developed sense of fairness, and so we actually end up being unfair to everyone. Different kids have different needs, and that’s okay!)

  • Our 8- and 9-year-olds get 2 hours of total game time per week, and our 6-year-old gets 1 hour per week. (In the summertime, when school is out, we let the older kids have 3 hours/week, and the 6-year-old gets 2 hours.)
  • Here’s my favorite part about the plan: The kids manage their own time. (They do have to ask us first: Is this an okay time to play? Can I play for x minutes?) This freedom of choice is teaching them to manage their time, and is helping them to develop self-control and their own conscience about games.
  • We set a timer for the amount of time they request, record it on the family calendar, and they stop when the timer goes off. And when their weekly time is up, it’s up!
  • The most important part of this plan is that Kevin and I have follow-up talks with each kid. We keep an eye on our children, but we also ask how they think they are doing with games. This is a regular, ongoing conversation, especially with our son. We recently took another total break from games, and we periodically take breaks like that when we need a change.

For more on the kinds of questions parents should ask as you develop a plan for your children’s technology use, check out this article, Parents Vs. Zombies: 26 Questions Every Parent Should Ask About Kids and Technology.

Lessons Learned:

  • Video games aren’t a problem for every kid, but for some children, who tend toward obsessiveness or laziness, they are a big problem. We have to watch our children as individuals, and know them well enough to recognize when they are not handling technology well.

  • A complete break from games can be a helpful way to reset your family dynamic and give parents some time to reevaluate how you want to handle games and devices. (I love this article about the benefits of periodic technology fasts, and the parenting opportunities we miss when our kids are too plugged in.)

  • Parents must be engaged and intentional in how we introduce technology to our children, and stay engaged in monitoring it. We can’t just let technology happen to us accidentally.

  • Devices and social media will play a part in our children’s lives. They will all have to learn self-control and appropriate behavior with games and devices and social media. The more that we do as parents to equip our kids to handle technology now, the better their life will go in the future.

  • The long-term goal is to equip our kids to handle technology wisely on their own, without our constant supervision—but every child needs an age-appropriate level of vigilance and guidance.

  • From a big-picture parenting perspective, games and technology can also provide a great teaching tool for our kids’ character. They provide a way to talk to children about such biblical concepts as self-control, selflessness, discipline, gluttony, training, integrity, godly thoughts, and (eventually) purity.

  • This is not a one-and-done conversation. Parents have to continually evaluate how things are going and make decisions about what happens next: When do our kids get phones or tablets of their own? When do they join social media? What about school-related computer time? The list of decisions is endless! (Again, for a list of questions to ask about technology, click here.)

To summarize: ENGAGE. THINK. PRAY. DISCUSS. MONITOR. REEVALUATE.

REPEAT. REPEAT AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN.

After all that we went through last spring, we got our son back. His brain resurrected after his incursion into the land of the Walking Dead. We hope our family’s battle against the zombies can give other families some ideas and strategies for successfully navigating the tricky terrain of technology.

Want more on this topic? This is my favorite article yet about kids and electronics, written by a blogger I love, Renee Robinson. She articulates so beautifully the gifts we hope to give our children (and ourselves) by not handing them an iPhone or tablet every time they get bored.

Before you go, click here to sign up for the LizzyLife newsletter! You’ll receive a gift of seven two-minute devotions to do with kids (including one about teaching kids to set their thoughts on God).

Helping kids who are obsessed with gaming from @lizzylife0121