Anne Crawford has three children, ages 8 through 13, so she has heard her share of whining.
"My kids whine about doing the chores," she says, "or about how unfair it is that one got something and the other didn't. I'd say whining pretty much comes with the territory."
According to Bay Area pediatrician Laurel Schultz, kids whine for a very simple reason. It works. "Whining gets the parent's attention," Schultz says. "A high-pitched whine is effective because a parent can't not attend to it."
Preventing the Whine
Schultz explains this is not a conscious strategy on the part of children, but a learned behavior -- and parents often play a role. If a child asks for something in a polite way and the parent doesn't respond the first time or two, the child will amp up the volume. A small child may holler or even throw a tantrum. But an older child, who has more self-control, is likely to whine.
To avoid whining, Schultz advises parents not to wait until children are in distress to acknowledge them. "It's important to respond to that first bid for attention, if you can," she says. "If you are on the phone or in the middle of a conversation, make eye contact with your child and put a finger up, so she knows you'll be with her in a minute. Then give your child your attention as soon as you can politely do so."
A Call for Attention
Educator and developmental psychologist Becky Bailey says that when whining does occur, parents should take a deep breath and remind themselves that the child is not trying to be irritating. The child is actually asking for help.
"Respond with I-statements," Bailey says, "and model the way you want the child to speak. Say something like, 'I don't like it when you whine. If you want a glass of milk, say it like this.' Then model the exact words and tone you want the child to use."
If your child continues to whine, and you're sure it's not from pain or illness, Bailey suggests that you look beyond the whiny behavior to determine the larger message it conveys. "Ask yourself, 'Have I been busier than usual? Has my child's routine changed? Has a sibling required more attention for some reason?' Often, whining is a signal it's time to reconnect with your child."
To do that, she advises that you spend some focused time together reading, cooking a meal, or doing something else the child enjoys. "A few minutes connecting with your child once or twice a day can make a huge difference for families dealing with difficult behaviors," Bailey says.