Discipline Can Backfire
Even when your child is able to articulate that she is hungry for lunch or hates sitting in her car seat, for example, she may still whine because she's learned from experience that you'll pay attention. "For 3- and 4-year-olds who are testing the limits of their independence, whining makes them feel very powerful," says psychologist Carolyn Crowder, Ph.D., coauthor of Whining: 3 Steps to Stopping It Before the Tears and Tantrums Start (Fireside Paperbacks, 2000).
"If you can't stand whining, your child will do it even more, simply because it gets a reaction," agrees Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., coauthor of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers (Prima Publishing, 1998). Even scolding your child can reinforce the behavior. "Kids just want a response. When they don't know how to get a positive response, they'll go for a negative one," Nelsen explains. And needless to say, giving in ("Okay, you can have one piece of candy, but promise you'll eat your lunch?") doesn't work either. You'll get a respite from the whining, but you're still perpetuating the problem.
Fortunately, you can break this pattern -- in a way that encourages your child's development rather than punishes her. "When you stop getting frustrated by the whining, your child will stop too," insists Nelsen. At first, this laissez-faire approach seemed completely unrealistic to me. But because my daughter was a whine connoisseur, I decided to try it.
It wasn't easy -- often I was tempted to yell or just give her what she wanted--but I was determined to be firm and consistent. "You have to exercise a lot of self-control," acknowledges Dr. Crowder. To my amazement, within a few weeks, Elizabeth had gotten into the habit of asking nicely instead of nagging. Here's what you do.