Why Do Kids Whine?

why-do-kids-whine

Our family was on vacation recently--and my husband and I wanted to explore some new sights. We love to wander around and breathe it all in. My kids don't always share this joy. In fact, on this particular trip, their legs seem to quit functioning altogether. They "couldn't walk" another step but could miraculously ride a bike and swim with ease.

Whining is very much a part of childhood.

In fact, it's also very much a part of adulthood. But by the time we are grown, we have learned the difference between public and private speech, and we understand the need to separate the two in different contexts.

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Why Do Kids Whine?

Public speech includes things that we say aloud. Private speech involves what we keep in our heads. As adults, we have learned what is appropriate to say aloud vs. keep in our heads.

As our children grow, they will learn to censor their public speech as well. They will learn that it's not okay to say aloud, "Grandma, this food is gross!". As they learn and grow, you will see them censoring in some settings and not others. That means, they will voice whining and complaining to you that they would never dream of vocalizing in school.

Take this as a compliment. That means your kids feel intimately connected to you. Perhaps they even view you as an extension of themselves. They are sharing their otherwise private speech with you...publicly.

When was the last time you stepped out of your car and thought, "Ugh, it's SO hot and miserable out here. Can we just go back into the air conditioning?" You may have thought this recently, but kept it within your brain. If you were in a mix of people you didn't know well, you likely kept this as private speech in your head. If you were with intimate company, like just your partner or family--you may have said it aloud.

Your child, on the other hand, would likely always say this aloud in the early years. Because they are still learning to censor their public speech.

Kids will gradually learn as they grow. You can gently redirect and explain that some things are better kept as thoughts in their mind—but expect this to be a slow and somewhat painful learning process. Don't shame or scold the whining, because it takes time to learn. 

If you try to teach it directly, you will be mixed results. And you will probably get frustrated with the failed attempts. The best way to teach this is to model it yourself. That means keep your own complaining under wraps. If you listen to yourself and find yourself to be a bit whiny--your kids may continue to whine more as they get older too. That's not to say you are 100% to blame, but they learn from the people around them. You will never be able to put an end to it entirely, but you can do your part by being intentional with your own whines/complaints. 

Whining Vs. Complaining

Technically, there is a difference between whining and complaining. When you whine, you voice frustration or irritation without the expectation of a resolution. When you complain, you are looking to have your concerns addressed and resolved.

Whine: The school is so disorganized.   

Complain: The principal lacks leadership skills, and he needs to be replaced.

For the purposes of this article, we are going to just group these together, because generally, we do that in our minds. Now let's talk about three things: generalized whininess, whining to get something, and whining to get out of something.

Whining for Connection

First, let's talk generalized whininess. Maybe you have a kid that just seems really whiny…about everything. You'll want to start by covering the obvious bases: Have they ate well and slept well? If not, start there. If they have, they are probably looking for connection. In fact, lots of children whine for connection.

If they are whining for connection and your response is "STOP WHINING!" and you dismiss them, it will probably only intensify the whining. Because these kids don't need to be dismissed, they need a hug. Your best solution to handle generalized whininess is to offer connection: get down on their level and look your child in the eyes, give her hugs, read a book aloud, or just pause and be present with him.

Kids will rarely ask verbally for connection—but they often are begging for it if you listen to their behavior. 

You know who else whines for connection? I do! I find that if I'm feeling disconnected from my partner, I'll whine and complain at him more. When that connection is reestablished, and our relationship feels secure--the whining subsides. Can you tune in to your own patterns and see if this happens to you as well? Clearly, it's not just our kids!

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Whining to Get What You Want

Next, let's talk about whining to get something. Perhaps your kid is whining for ice cream or more TV time. If you have a kid who frequently whines about obtaining something, there's a good chance that you have a "malleable no."

What's a "malleable no?" It's a "no" that can be easily molded and changed by whining.

Can I have ice cream?

No.

Can I please please please have ice cream?

No.

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.

Fine, take the ice cream.

If you have a malleable no, you need to shift to a hard no. Setting boundaries and being firm is not synonymous with being mean. It's just a part of you doing your job. I demonstrated the "hard no" in episode 190, and speak about it at length there—tune into that episode for examples of what it sounds like.

When you fine-tune your "hard no," you'll only have to say no once. 

Whining to Get Out of Something

Now, how about the kid who whines to get out of something? Perhaps they complain that their legs hurt when you ask them to walk a half of a mile—but they seem content to run for days with their friends.

If you haven't already figured this out, you can't really force kids to do things. If they are refusing to walk, you can't manually force them into standing position and "walk" for them. So we know what we can't do—but what can we do?

We can use less shame and more encouragement.

  • "You are so lazy, get up and walk. I planned this fun day out to see a waterfall, and you don't appreciate it." (Shame)
  • "I know it seems like a long way, but this is going to be really fun. We are heading to a waterfall, and we can take our shoes off and wade around!" (Encouragement)

If you are interested in hiking with kids and have reluctant hikers, I talk more about this in episode 168. I will tell you that for the most part, if you can get past the initial whining, you will find smooth(er) sailing after that.

So bring your most positive attitude and motivation and don't give up.

Now, if your kids are whining to get out of something—it also might be a sign to tune in. If they whine every time they go to soccer practice, maybe it's time to reconsider if soccer is a good fit. If they whine every time you drop them off at Sally's house to play—maybe Sally isn't the best playmate for your child. You can be encouraging and motivating, but at the end of the day, we do need to give our kid's a voice in the way they spend their time. It's all about balance.

Lastly, let's talk about the kid who whines about doing things they can already do. Like, put on their shoes. Even if children can complete a task on their own, it doesn't mean that it is easy. If they are not feeling 100%, perhaps they are tired or hungry…simple tasks may seem harder. I never hesitate to help with small things when my kids aren't at their best. Teamwork is something that we all can benefit from.

At the end of the day, we have to learn to get comfortable with our kid's discomfort and unhappiness. Because they will be uncomfortable and unhappy at many points in their lives—and that is okay. Life is full of ups and downs. We need to make peace with the fact that their lives won't always be super easy and pleasant. 

Life can be hard. 

We can't prevent our kids from learning that. So if we can get comfortable with their discomfort, they can start to do the same. 

Can we talk about our own discomfort here for a minute? 

Why is Whining so Painful for Parents?

Frequent complaining hurts our ears, our hearts, and our egos. Can you imagine if your boss followed you around all day at work, complaining about everything you do? Whining endlessly. How would you feel? It would probably take a toll on your self-esteem. Because that whining and complaining can easily be interpreted as a message that you lack in some way. You aren't doing well enough at your job. You aren't showing up the way you should. 

The truth is, maybe the boss has unrealistic expectations.

And often, our kids have unrealistic expectations of us too. When our kids whine, or just generally when they are unhappy, we can easily slip into this mindset that we have done something wrong. Or that we are failing to show up and serve our children in the way that we should. 

Because as parents, we often feel responsible for our children's happiness. 

So you want to hear my secret weapon for whining? Building on my own self-esteem. 

I am not responsible for my children's happiness. I can't even gift them happiness, even if I wanted to. But happiness can be contagious. So I have to start with me. 

When my kids whine, I start doing a lot of deep breathing and self-talk in my mind. Here's what it sounds like up there in my mind:

"The kids are expressing normal dissatisfaction. They are okay. They are loved, fed, cared for, and most importantly...they are resilient. They can tolerate some discomfort and unhappiness, and they will grow from it. They are okay. We are okay."

You are showing up every day, doing your best. You will get some complaints and some expressions of dissatisfaction. But the truth is, this job isn't linear. It's not static. 

It's dynamic and constantly changing. You are the best parent for your child, and you are already doing so much better than you know. I challenge you to just sit with the whining and be okay with it. It's not easy, but it will help you to persevere and keep your calm. And most days--that's the biggest part of the job. 

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Denaye Barahona

Dr. Denaye Barahona is a loving wife and mama of two. She partners with families to tackle the challenges of raising children. Denaye is a minimalist who claims to be a decluttering expert (don't let her near your closet). She loves to travel, talk health-and-wellness, and give unsolicited advice. She has been featured on the likes of The Today Show, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Minimalists, Motherly, Becoming Minimalist, and numerous other media outlets. Denaye holds a Ph.D. in Child Development and is a Clinical Social Worker with a specialty in child and family practice.