The One Sentence to Say to Get a Toddler to Stop Whining

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 preschooler and, oh wow, I get it.

Upon further research, the choice our kids make to whine is actually quite fascinating. A recent 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.

So, what’s the calmest way to get it to stop the minute it starts? On a recent 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. 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?”

The reason this works is because you’re first acknowledging your child’s discomfort; you see their need for your attention and you’re making yourself available, but you need them to step up a bit, too, and adjust their tone. It’s also the polar opposite of your typical reaction to whining, which is to yell or exhibit body language that shows how triggered and irritated you’re feeling. (Hey, that response is only natural, but it also encourages your kid to keep going.)

I decided to test Dr. Pressman’s advice on my own son. The other night, when his words turned high-pitched and impatiently sing-songy as I was trying to rush to prep dinner, I stopped: “I really want to understand what you need from me, but can you please say that again in your real voice?” He paused, then said a bit timidly: “I want you to play with me, mama.” Of course, the dinner demands still existed, but I was proud of him for calmly articulating his needs. (We came up with a project for him to do side by side with me on the kitchen floor.)

Will it work every time? TBD. But if it saves a parent’s sanity even once, here here.

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