Do you have whining children? There’s good news—you’re not alone. You’re not even close to being alone.
Whenever a mother of young children confides in me she doesn’t understand why her children whine so much or asks if she has done something to cause it, it’s important to convey to her that it’s natural for young children to exhibit this behavior, and she didn’t cause it. Her parenting techniques combined with the child’s personality and learning experiences may not have helped the situation—but she didn’t cause it.
Mothers don’t sit around at the dinner table and cue their children, “Now repeat after me Honey… but I don’t want to eat my broccoli…” Children at various points learn to do this all on their own.
Instead of feeling guilty or even feeding the temptation that you “just have” whiny children, first take a look at why children whine. This can help us to understand how to shepherd them in a loving way away from the habit—and what to replace it with.
There are four main reasons children whine. Depending on your train of thought, you may lump them all into one or two basic reasons.
Simply put, all of us are born sinners. It is normal not to be content. “I want” is natural to every human being on the planet. It is less “obvious” in well adapted adults, but we all have wants (and not-wants).
Whining is one of the initial ways children learn to convey the I want or I don’t want self.
Our society has given this word a negative connotation, but it shouldn’t always be this way. All of us manipulate something in order to meet an actual or perceived need. When our environment is uncomfortable, we manipulate it—we may turn the thermostat up or close the window to become more comfortable and keep our core temperature where it needs to be.
It’s important to remember two things when understanding children and their acts of manipulation: that they are independent thinkers, and that they are still learning.
Children have their own minds, and a good parent encourages them to think and learn about the world around them while protecting their environment and exposure during the learning process. As frustrating as it may be at times, even when we tell our children something, their minds are very young and still immature and they are still learning—which means they are still learning the boundaries of manipulation.
As parents, we need to teach our children what healthy manipulation is: manipulation of their environment to meet real needs: body temperature, hunger, thirst, etc. We must also teach them what unhealthy manipulation is: manipulating people or anything else to get things you want instead of what you need.
Other reasons that children whine that fall under the manipulation category include:
How many times have you heard a young kid whine, “But I caaaaaan’t put on my own shoes/sock/zip my coat”? Yet you’ve seen the kid do it before many times when that adult wasn’t around to help. You know this child can do the task him/herself, yet with this particular adult, s/he just wants the attention.
Many of my children did this with my husband in their younger years. By 2 years old, all my kids could dress themselves, yet when their daddy was around, suddenly the whining turns on. Why? They want their daddy’s attention.
Does this make them evil? No. It’s just how they manipulate someone into giving them attention.
- Meeting A Perceived Need
You’re at the grocery store and you hear a young child whining that they neeeeed something. Young children really don’t understand the difference between needs and wants. That 2 year old might actually think he needs a candy bar if he doesn’t yet understand the difference between need and want, and whining is his way of manipulating his parent into getting it for him.
The same could be said about older children, and even teenagers who neeeed something.
- Shirking Responsibility
“But I don’t waaannnt to.” I think every young child has said this over and over. This is one we also see in middle aged and older children as well. Some may even see it in the teenage years.
Whining to the point where an authority figure simply doesn’t want to listen to anymore whining is a way of getting out of responsibility.
A child that follows mom around the kitchen while she prepares lunch and whines over and over, “I’m huuuunnnngry Mom” may be whining for several different reasons.
First, their mind may really believe if they keep whining then their food may come faster (which falls under manipulation of an actual or perceived need). Second, they may unconsciously be getting attention from mom because she repeatedly addresses him, “Yes Honey, I’m making your lunch.” Or, as in the case with really young children, there may be a trust issue present.
If a child remembers multiple times when mom just kept talking on the phone an hour past lunchtime, he may subconsciously not trust that food is actually coming.
We see this in the child who is whining at the poolside when the parent is in the pool saying, “Jump to me and I’ll catch you” while the child yells and shirks, “I don’t want to! I caaaaaan’t” and cries and wails on and on. This is a legitimate trust issue. In this case, the trust issue must be solved before the whining. Telling a child to stop whining and jump is not a healthy solution to this situation.
It is important to point out, this is a different scenario than a different child and parent in the same situation where the child stands back and states, “Dad I can’t, I’m scared.” In this situation, because the child is not whining and has learned to verbalize his needs in a healthy way, the real issue is apparent: the child is scared enough to not be in a fully trusting relationship right now.
For whatever reason, a child has learned to respond to a situation with whining. Some children have learned either through watching someone else or by having their whining go uncorrected, that whining is simply the response to certain situations.
Picture it: it’s dinner time and you’ve made meatloaf again. Your children do not like meatloaf. Every time you’ve made it, they have whined about it. What should you expect when they see or smell the meatloaf tonight? Whining. As long as it has been allowed or uncorrected, it will continue—it has become a learned response.
Children also learn to whine by watching other children whine and getting their desired response. I’ll leave you with two examples here.
You are at the grocery store. The child next to you starts asking his mother to get him something. The mother states, “Thank you for asking so nicely. I’ll have to see if we have enough money first Honey, but right now I need you to wait patiently.” The child eventually raises their voice several octaves and starts whining. “Pleeeeeeease Mommy! I reeeeeaaaaally want it. Mommy I neeeeeed it.” The mother turns to her child and with a gentle but stern voice she says, “I asked you to wait, and not whine. Now the answer is ‘no.’”
If your child witnessed this, she learned a lesson. She learned that whining did not work so well for this other child.
In a second example, start with the same grocery store scenario. Only this time, the child keeps whining and eventually, even though the mother may get visibly frustrated, she grabs it and puts it in the cart.
Now, if your child witnessed this scenario, she learned a very different lesson. She learned that whining was a solution to get what was wanted.
So, if you’re that mom who’s at the end of your rope wondering if you caused this whining, or if you’ve done something wrong, then give yourself grace. Children, as innocent as they are, are born with sinful natures just like you and I are. They learn to manipulate just the same as you and I (and every creature in nature really).
They need to learn trust, the difference between needs and wants, and healthy skills to get their needs met. So no Mother, you didn’t cause your child to whine—she learned it on her own.
But can you stop it? Although there will always be an exception to the rule, there are many ways to address the whining. Next week we’ll talk about techniques to teach your child to get their needs met in healthier ways, and ditch the whining.
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