Dr. Michele Borba gives whining children the benefit of the doubt. The author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, Borba says that you can’t — or, rather, shouldn’t — blame a child for whining if it works. Parental manipulation is, after all, a pretty useful skill for toddlers. It is ultimately better to have an occasionally annoying kid than a kid that isn’t actively figuring out how to get what they want.
“They get really good at it,” Borba says. “They figure out when we’re at our weakest. When we’re tired. Which means, good, they’re kids. Good, they’re smart.”
How does a kid come by this very particular set of skills? Borba explains It’s largely trial and error, and careful observation. When a kid discovers whining’s a way under a parent’s skin, the technique sticks because of consistent success. This is why parents offer a predictable response to the question, “When do your kids stop whining?”
“When they’re asleep.”
That said, Borba points out that whining is a situational tactic. As such, it can be countered. She suggests keeping a whining calendar to figure out how the tactic is being used. Kids likely aren’t taking a strategic approach, but they will fall into specific grooves, whining when stressed, hungry, or uncomfortable. Sometimes simply finding the root cause and addressing underlying needs is enough to fix the behavior. Other times, a kid is just experiencing a failure of empathy, which is a nice way of saying that they’re being a little jerk.
And, yes, even Borba’s respect for whining is grudging. She still sees it for what it is, a potential gateway drug for full-blown jerkhood. “It will escalate,” she admits. “if you don’t stop it, that little pout can become a little whine, and then they’re 7 and 8 and it’s back talk and defiance. They still need to know this isn’t how we treat each other.”
Borba’s solution to end whining is simple: Don’t respond. Calm responses or non-responses will likely drive a kid nuts. If that happens, a simple explanation that the whining behavior is inappropriate will suffice. Some parents even develop a hand gesture (the middle finger is not recommended, but might work). Though Borba understands that some parents might be afraid that this will hurt a kid’s self-esteem, she counters that emotional growth is more likely to be hindered by solicitous behaviors. Also, there are endless opportunities for praise.
There are a couple of additional tricks. To remain consistent, Borba explains that parents need to be on the same page, even going as far as having two-minute mini whining conferences to hash out how things are going. She also suggests that parents talk about whining with their kid’s ancillary caregivers like grandmothers or preschool workers.
“Ask them if they’re seeing it,” Borba says. “And when they say ‘No,’ it will just want to make you spit. But the other thing to do is ask the key question: How are they responding that they aren’t getting the whining.”
Once everyone is on the same page, and sharing the same goal, things should progress in the right direction. There’s no telling how long the intervention will take. Kids are hard to predict. Such is life.
“Dads are really good at stopping whining,” Borba adds. “They can give a dirtier look.”