It may take some time, but with a clear and consistent approach you should be able to reduce the whining a great deal. (Notice I didn't say eliminate it entirely; everyone whines once in a while, especially young children.) The first and most important principle is to avoid rewarding whining. Too often we parents complain about our children's whining, but if they whine long enough, we give in. Plain and simple, that teaches kids that whining works.
Exactly how (or if) you respond to your child's whining will depend in part on the circumstances in which it occurs. For example, if your son whines when he asks you for something, say, "Use a positive voice to tell me what you want." If he doesn't understand what you mean, demonstrate for him how you want him to talk to you. Tell him that from now on you are not going to answer him when he whines--and then don't. After you've explained this to him a couple of times, you should just be able to give him a look when he whines and then turn away until he uses an acceptable tone.
Many times kids whine when they're asked to do something they don't want to do (e.g., put their toys away or come to the table for dinner). If that is the case with your child, simply ignore the whining. If he's doing what you asked him to do (even if he's whining about it), tell him matter-of-factly, "Thank you for doing what I asked you to do even though you didn't want to." If he does the task without whining, pay special attention. Whatever the pattern of your child's whining, be sure to notice times when he doesn't--especially in situations when you might have expected him to whine. At those times, give him a big smile and hug and tell him you appreciate his good attitude.
Also, keep in mind that young children often whine when they've been over stressed. At the end of a long and tiring day, when they're in unfamiliar surroundings, when they're not feeling well, or when they haven't had enough attention from a busy mom and dad, kids are bound to get whiny. So try to anticipate and prevent those situations as much as possible. For example, transition times often are especially difficult for young children (and parents, too)--times like the morning rush to get off to work and childcare, coming home at the end of a long day, or bedtime. Right after work, we often rush around to check the mail, phone messages and make dinner. Instead, it often helps to give children half an hour of undivided attention before dealing with those other tasks.
Bedtime often goes more smoothly if we intentionally set up a consistent, relaxing ritual of a warm bath, story time and a gentle lullaby. (This ultimately takes less time than the hassles that ensue when we try to rush bedtime.) And it helps to allow plenty of time for the morning routine, even if it means getting up a few minutes early. Nothing is more likely to provoke whining--or worse--than trying to get young children and yourself dressed, fed and out the door in a hurry.
Finally, be mindful of how the adults in the household talk to each other; often, children are not the only whiners in the house. As with all other aspects of family life, we parents need to be careful to model the positive attitudes and behaviors we want to see in our children.
Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.