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Why Kids Whine

Hint: Basically, because it’s effective

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For your toddler’s sake (and yours), try these tips to help your tot find better ways to communicate.
Why Kids Whine

It’s such a thrill when your baby learns to talk. Much less thrilling is that developmental stage that quickly follows: whining! Why do little ones do it? It’s a combination of factors.

  • Toddlers are still learning how to talk, and whining is a bridge between crying and talking. You’ll hear it start when babies are about 18 months old, and continue into the preschool years (depending on how you respond to it—see below for the best ways to end it).
  • Very young children don’t have the vocabulary to express their needs. Instead, they resort to fussing and whimpering.
  • Toddlers face a lot of frustration because they often can’t physically do what they wish they could. But one thing they can do is complain!
  • If they’re tired, hungry, or coming down with something, you guessed it: they’ll express their discomfort in a whiny tone.
  • Kids are smart. They figure out very quickly that whining usually gets a response from adults, because we grown-ups are very motivated to make it stop—now. And even negative attention (“Stop that whining!”) is worth it.

Scientists Weigh In

So far, so good. But here’s the catch: no matter how determined you are to stay the course, and no matter how hard you try to ignore it, whining is difficult to tune out, and research supports that.

In a State University of New York-New Paltz study a while back, subjects were asked to compute math problems while researchers exposed them to distracting sounds, including baby talk, a machine operating, and people talking. The most difficult sound for both men and women to ignore? Whining. And get this: the sound of a kid whining is more distracting than the high-pitch shriek of a table saw whirring.

Two Top Whine Stoppers

So the whys of whining are many. The successful solutions? There are only a few, but they really work—as long as you stick to the program.

1. Stop whining before it starts. OK, this is way easier said than done. Your child is growing and developing at her own pace and you can’t rush her through it. But you can try to meet her needs—when you know what they are!—and also help her learn how to express those needs positively. For example, offer her a few choices, all of which are acceptable to you, when she’s getting dressed, having a snack, or choosing an activity. Let her pick what she prefers so she feels in control and gets some practice making decisions.

Keep your child on a schedule when you can, because routine is soothing to toddlers; they like knowing what to expect. When disruptions happen, try to offer a preview of what’s coming and give your child some extra snuggles and attention. These can go a long way toward heading off whining.

2. Resist responding. Also, not easy—but very effective. If your child asks for something in a whiny voice, do not give it to him. Point out that he’s whining (he probably doesn’t even know it) and that you can’t hear him when he talks that way (or at least tell him that!). Then stand firm! Consistency is key. A little humor helps, too. Pretend that your ears are just not working, or that you’re going to catch the whiny sound in a box and put it away. Keep your face and voice neutral, since even negative attention rewards the whining.

Your child might need your help understanding what isn’t whining, and learning the words he needs to describe what he wants or how he’s feeling. Model a pleasant tone of voice for your child to hear, and be sure to praise him when he uses it. Your conversation might go like this:

CHILD: “I neeeeeed a cookie!” (in a whiny voice)

PARENT: “What’s that? My ears can’t understand you when you talk that way. Can you try again?”

CHILD: “I neeeeeed a cookie!!!”

PARENT: “Hmmm, still not working. How about if you said, ‘Mommy, may I please have a snack?’”

CHILD: “Please have snack.”

PARENT: “Oh, now I understand! You are hungry and you need a snack. You may have an apple or a graham cracker. Thank you for asking nicely.”

You’ll probably end up having many versions of this conversation. But eventually, the message will sink in, and your kiddo will give up the whiny voice for good.