MOLLY: This question came from a reader based in Los Angeles and she also mentioned that she has two kids and there’s quite a bit of sibling rivalry between the two of them.
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): I think that a parent can set limits with her child but we all should realize that the child will push against a limit pretty hard, especially at the beginning, and whine a lot and if you end up giving in. A child can recognize when a technique works and will continue to do it. That will set the stage for her to do it over and over again and will end up driving the parents and every other adult around crazy.
It's best to start changing this behavior soon after it starts to become a habit. Early on, don’t give in when the child whines. Instead, give her an option. Say something like, "If you can ask me nicely without whining, then we can talk about this and figure this problem out. But if you’re going to continue to whine, nothing is going to happen."
Remember: kids will test you over and over about limits until they see that you really mean it. It’s very important that, once you set the stage for the child about not whining, you really have to stick to it without any exceptions.
MOLLY: What do you do about the crying?
MOM: The parent can say that she needs to go to her room if she wants to cry. If she refuses to go to her room then the parent should escape into her own room because, let's face it, you don’t want to be around that behavior. Say to the child, “When you’re ready to talk to me about this without whining, I’m more than happy to discuss it with you and come to a solution but I’m not going to do this while you’re whining.”
MOLLY: Some of the things we’ve used for dealing with whining and crying in our house have been sticker charts.
MOM: Sticker charts are always great for incentivizing behavior changes with rewards. You can absolutely do a sticker chart, and it’s a very good idea. Sticker charts help make concepts concrete for little kids because that’s how their brains work. So if you get a sticker chart and mark it when she doesn’t whine (using the positive reward system), you'll want to point out verbally to the child that she did a nice job and let her put the sticker on the chart. After she gets a certain amount of stickers, she’ll then get to pick out a new book or go for ice cream or something; some sort of recognition that she’s handling things well in a grown-up way. Kids really like that.
MOLLY: Another thing I’ve heard of doing is to use a calendar and markone day of the week that the child can have some alone-time with the mother. I know this can be helpful in reducing sibling rivalry issues, and I'll bet a lot of whining comes from jealousy of siblings.
MOM: That can be the reward: the time alone with the parent. I think that’s a great idea. You gear it towards whatever makes sense in your own family.
I think it’s essential that you talk...
Molly Skyar and Dr. Rutherford are behind the blog “Conversations With My Mother”: a blog about raising kids and how our parenting decisions now can have long term effects.
Dr. Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist in practice for over 30 years. She has degrees from Duke University, New York University (NYU), and the University of Denver.
Molly is Dr. Rutherford's younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.