One of the more vivid memories from my childhood is my dad saying clearly and concretely: “I can handle any conversation…as long as you don’t whine.” Flash forward to my current role as a parent of a little kid and, oh wow, I get it.
Upon further research, the choice our children make to whine is actually quite fascinating. A 2019 piece in the New York Times explains it as a kid behavior so common, it’s universal across cultures and a mechanism kids deploy to get the attention of their parents…fast. Research also demonstrates that, as far as vocalization options go, it’s the most annoying choice made by our kids. A study published by the American Psychological Association found that participants forced to listen to whining made more mistakes and were less productive; they also found it way more distracting than the sound of a typical infant cry. (Which explains why my child’s whimpering about dinner last night completely derailed my plans to send some work emails.)
So, what’s the calmest way to get it to stop the minute it starts? On an episode of the podcast Raising Good Humans, hosted by Dr. Aliza Pressman, developmental psychologist and co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, she says the first step is to take a deep breath.“Whining isn’t harmful, it’s just annoying,” Dr. Pressman says.
She then shared her genius phrase to help your toddler communicate better. Her advice is to pause, breathe, then get down on eye level [with your child] and say: “I really want to understand what you’re trying to say, but it’s hard for me to understand when you’re whining. Can you try that again in your real voice?”