When You Hear: "It's not fair!"
Don't say: "Well, life's not fair."
The whine-stopper: The best way to beat this type of complaining is to empathize with your child's situation. "If he's envious that his sister is going to a friend's house, for example, say, 'I know it's really hard when your sister gets to go to a sleepover and you have to stay home,'" says Toni Schutta, a psychologist and parent coach in St. Paul. "He'll be more likely to calm down if you acknowledge that he's upset, because he'll feel understood." That's the approach taken by Margaret Schwartz, a Falls Church, Virginia, mother of boys ages 4 and 5 -- but she goes a step further. "Rupert, who's older, sometimes gets to do things that Nicky can't," she says. "So when Nicky starts complaining, I'll say, 'Yes, it's not fair, but why don't we do something that you like to do instead?' So, we get out his Play-Doh or watch a movie, and he usually stops whining right away."
When You Hear: "But whhhy?"
Don't say: "Because I said so!"
The whine-stopper: Turn the question around. "When your child says, 'But why?' ask, 'Why do you think I'm saying no?'" says Fran Walfish, PsyD, a family and child psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California. "It works because your child has to stop whining long enough to think of an answer." If your child can't come up with anything, start giving hints. Asking her to guess is more effective than constantly repeating your reasons, which may be lost on a child anyway. "Parents work too hard trying to explain themselves," says Dr. Walfish. The trick is to get your child to think from your point of view, so she's more likely to understand your rules -- and stick to them.
Megan Hill, a mother in Excelsior, Minnesota, tries to make her kids laugh so they'll stop asking why. Whenever their whining becomes so grating that she can't take it anymore, Hill asks them, "I can't understand you when you talk like that. Are you speaking Russian again?" It works too. "My kids usually start laughing and then change their tone," she says.
When You Hear: "You can't make me!"
Don't say: "Oh, yes I can!"
The whine-stopper: Try lightening the mood, advises Schutta: "Lightly tickle your child and jokingly say, 'I can because I'm the Tickle Monster!'" Or turn your request into a game: "Let's see if you can put your clothes in the hamper in two minutes." Use a timer and let him run for it. Simply saying, "Oh, yes I can" rarely gets you anywhere; it actually sets the stage for a major power struggle.
If these tactics don't work, come up with a consequence. Calmly say, "You have 10 minutes to put away your toys or we won't go to the playground later" -- and then stick to it. "This nips defiance in the bud and makes it clear that you're the one in charge," says Schutta.
Margaret Schwartz thought of a quick comeback last year when her son Nicky refused to wear his seat belt. "He hated putting it on and I had to come up with an explanation that would be rational to a 3-year-old," says Schwartz. "So I told him that if the police find out that he's not wearing his seat belt, they'd get very mad at me. Now he puts it on the minute he gets in the car."
When You Hear: "Daddy would let me!"
Don't say: "Well, Daddy's not here."
The whine-stopper: "Say, 'If you think Daddy would say yes, then Daddy and I need to talk because we want to agree on these things,'" says Dr. Walfish. You can even thank your child in a funny way for tipping you off to this fact.
But even if you can't get on the same page with your spouse -- and sometimes you can't -- kids still need to know that they have to obey whoever is in charge.
Do this by calmly and firmly repeating your request -- "It's time to brush your teeth. You have to brush your teeth" -- until your child sees that you're serious and follows through, says Cynthia Whitham, author of Win the Whining War and Other Skirmishes. "She needs to learn that she has to follow the instructions of the adult in charge, whether it's her teacher, her babysitter, or you," adds Schutta.
When You Hear: "But Emily gets to!"
Don't say: "I don't care what Emily's parents let her do."
The whine-stopper: Reinforce your rules. "Say, 'Different families have different rules. And in our family, we don't watch TV on weekdays,'" says Schutta. So why can't you just dis Emily? "You always want your child to know that you care about his life, friends, and experiences," says Dr. Walfish. But you can help keep the peace by having a specific set of limits. "Post your family's rules on the refrigerator, and talk about them often," says Schutta. If you're always willing to discuss the rules and the reasons behind them in a calm way, you'll be less likely to hear about Emily's huge Bratz collection and super-late bedtime.
When You Hear "But I waaant it!"
Don't say: "You can't always get what you want."
The whine-stopper: Yes, it's tempting to start humming that Rolling Stones tune, but what you really need to do is show empathy -- at least before the whining becomes a full-blown tantrum. "Say, 'It does look like a fun toy, and I bet you'd really like it. Should we add it to your birthday list or would you like to save your allowance money for it?'" says Schutta. "This helps kids learn to delay gratification." Plus, this response gives them hope and empowers them, and it teaches them the importance of saving money. "Maybe when your child has saved $1 she can go to the 99-cent store and pick out a toy," says Dr. Walfish. It might be much more valuable to her than other toys because she bought it herself.
Of course, sometimes it's okay just to say "no," without giving a lengthy explanation. "I frequently tell parents that their children need to hear no," says Whitham. "Try to do this at home so they learn to handle disappointment there -- you won't have to deal with as many tantrums at school or in public when they don't get their way." Kids may whine at first, but they really do want you to set limits. It's how they learn self-control -- and feel loved and secure.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the February 2008 issue of Parents magazine.