Crying with Words: How to Understand Whining

diane sitting on steps with three kidsWhining is something parents can find as irritating as fingernails on a chalkboard (some younger parents may not have had experience with chalkboards, but trust me, the sound of fingernails on these archaic forms of classroom communication would make everyone in the room grimace.)

“Stop that whining!” parents often shout.

What is it about whining that can push our very last button? Why is it so annoying when a child whines?

In her excellent book about teaching children to be responsible, Pick up Your Socks, Elizabeth Crary states that whining is a typical behavior for three-year-olds. The Gesell Institute states that the typical 3 ½-year-old is emotionally insecure which leads to increased whining, crying, frequent questioning “Do you love me?” and frequent complaints that often include the statement, “You don’t love me.”

Both of these sources of information about typical ages and stages state that whining is also very common for four-, five-, six- and nine-year-olds, and this is not to say that it isn’t also occurring during other ages.

child and mother looking at each other.

For many parents, whining might make it seem that their children are trying to be manipulative and are attempting to wear a parent down in order to get their way.

However, it might help to see that whining is a kind of crying with words. Children often whine because they are extremely unhappy about something, are feeling deprived, left out, or ignored.

Something about realizing whining was a kind of crying that changed some of my attitudes about it and allowed me to be more appreciative that when my children were whining, they were trying to express some kind of hurt and sadness.

Typically when a baby cries, we don’t have the reaction of anger and frustration. We don’t blame and shame and reject that baby for crying. So we need to appreciate whining as the child crying with words. It can then help us be more understanding and less likely to get angry.

I remember reading that parents should help children recognize what they mean when they tell a child to stop whining. Children may not understand what whining sounds like, even though they’re doing it. In a non-punitive, non-shaming way, a parent can ask a child to listen to the difference in their voice when they say something using a whining tone, like “I want that!” and then saying the same thing but in a normal, conversational tone, “I want that.”

“Can you hear how the first way I said that is different from the way I said it the second time, even though my words were exactly the same? The first way I said it is whining and when someone whines, people feel like they are being begged to do something and they don’t like that tone of voice. When you say the same thing with a normal tone of voice, it is more likely that the other person will not be annoyed, will pay attention, and be more likely to consider what you are requesting.”

After providing this explanation, the next time a child whines, the parent can remind the child to say the same thing but without the whining tone. “I hear that you really want…. You’re using that whining way of speaking we talked about. Please say it in a normal voice and I will be able to hear it better.”

When children can understand the difference in their tone of voice can impact others, they have more power to talk in ways that are more conducive to a positive response.

There are adults who still whine, with that nasally, raspy voice tone that is such a turn off. Too bad they weren’t given the information about changing their tone so they might have better results when speaking without the whining.

Of course there’s the good follow-up line someone can throw out, “Would you like some cheese with that whine?” to encourage them to appreciate that they are whining. That comment might give the whiner a way to address it with a little humor!

Invitation to Reflect

  1. How did you respond the last time one of your children whined about wanting something? Did you find it irritating? Did you ever think about why it is so irritating for you?
  2. Does it change your response to whining to appreciate how it is really a form of crying but with words? How might you respond differently now that you understand this?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute


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