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Teaching our Children to Unlearn Whining

Date Posted:  Tuesday, December 18, 2018

One time I heard a parent say that she was surprised that her child could communicate without whining: “I didn’t know that my younger child could regulate his voice! I thought that whining was just ‘his voice’!”

As I explained to this mother, whining – or any tone of voice – is a learned habit that can be unlearned. This is true for kids (and most grownups) of any age. It takes two to communicate! And the tone your child uses is part of a communication pattern that has evolved as you and your child have interacted over time.

"Operation Whine-Away"

OK, here’s what I’m getting at: If you stop hearing the tone, the tone will go away. Kids are very practical. If something doesn’t work, they’ll move onto something that does. When your kids want something or they disagree with you, would you like them to just say what they want without whining, griping, or being sarcastic or snarky? If so, just follow these (mostly) simple steps. Note: You’ll want to tweak the messaging in most of these steps for older kids. But the basic messages remain the same. And they are simple messages — not lectures!!!

1. Set a beginning date for the project. (In the case of whining, you might call this Operation Whine-Away!) And get every adult and older sibling in the house on board. Now, it may not be possible to get everyone on board, and if so, that’s OK. Even if you are the only one doing this, this will have an effect. And those on board and involved in the project will be the ones who are no longer spoken to in an objectionable tone.

2. Give a heads-up. When your child is in a calm, balanced place (perhaps at bedtime?), tell her, “Starting tomorrow, I will not be able to hear your whining voice anymore. I will only be able to hear your strong voice. So if you whine, I will not hear you. But I will hear you if you use your strong voice.”

3. Remind your child in the morning. And later, when he whines and you have to “not hear” him, you can remind him again, just to be sure he knows why you’re ignoring him: “I see your lips moving, and I know you want to say something, but I can’t hear that voice. Can you say it again in your strong [or respectful, or kind] voice?” And once you’ve given a maximum of two or three reminders, go to Step 4.

4. Hold the line. Now, here’s the hard part: NO MORE REMINDERS. When your child uses that tone, act as though you do not see or hear him or her. As I said above, your child will stop the tone, but first, she will test and test and test to be absolutely certain the tone no longer works. In other words, the tone will get worse before it gets better.

5. Connect with your child. As soon as your child uses his/her strong (or respectful, or kind) voice, make immediate, positive contact, without praising that voice. Do not praise that voice; in fact, make no comment at all about tone of voice. Because the appropriate voice is now simply “the way we do things around here.” But do give attention and respond to the request in whatever way is appropriate. The point here is not correction or instruction but rather a positive, consistent connection with your child!

Step four is hard. So give yourself a head start – make a plan for what you will do with your attention while you’re ignoring the ever-escalating tone! Silently count by 4s. Silently recite the 50 states in alphabetical order. Silently recite the countries in Africa in alphabetical order. Say a prayer, tell yourself a joke, clean something, sew something, pull weeds. Any wavering on your part will extend the tone-elimination process. But plan for this and you will succeed. If you can do it – really do it – for two weeks, you will be free of tone. And if the tone ever returns, Step 4 will be much easier thanks to your practice!

This article was repurposed with the author’s consent from her website. Rebecah Freeling is a regular contributor this blog because she has a partnership with EB. She has lead a training in the Fall of 2018 with assistant teachers on "working with spirited children". A training made possible by the Annual Fund.