To many adults, one of the most offensive behaviors practiced by children is whining. ''Please, Mommy, please, please. We have to do it now. Please can we do it nowm?'' (To be read in a high-pitched, pleading voice.)
Yet many of us are guilty of rewarding the very behavior we wish to discourage. While most children whine occasionally, such as when they are tired, hungry, or need attention, those children who whine perpetually do so because they have found it to be effective.
When my son was young, I often visited a neighbor. We would send the children to another room to play. Just as we were involved in an ''adult'' conversation, in would come the kids to romp, yell, and play in the living room. I shudder to recall how many times I said to my son, ''If you and Sarah don't go to her room to play, we will have to go right home.'' But even though I knew better, I didn't follow through. The kids pestered us, whined for treats, and made our visits generally unpleasant. My friend and I repeatedly gave in to the children's demands, hoping to appease them and resume our conversation.
It is easy now to see that if I had once or twice actually ''gone right home, '' the children would have learned that their unacceptable behavior did not pay off. They would have respected their mothers' future requests, and my friend and I would have had pleasant, relatively uninterrupted conversations.
As a teacher, I have learned to confront whiny children directly. One 5 -year-old girl approached me about a problem with another student. Her whiny description of the other child's behavior prompted me to reply: ''He shouldn't have done that, and I will speak with him, but when you talk to me like this, your behavior becomes the issue. Apparently you have been successful in getting what you want by whining, but I can assure you that it will never work with me.'' While I observed this child whining at other teachers, such behavior never again entered into our relationship.
Some children may need longer-term reminders. When a whiny child approaches me with a problem, I say: ''You need to regain control of yourself and talk to me in a normal voice. Then I will help you.''
Humor can be effective in helping the child understand how his or her behavior appears to others. Jimmy said, ''If you don't take me for a boat ride right now, it will be too late.''
His mother responded: ''You need to discuss this with Grandpa. But which approach do you think will get better results: 'Say, Grandpa, do you think we could take that boat ride now, before I have to go home?' or. . . .'' She then imitated his original whiny statement. Of course 10-year-old Jimmy laughed at his mother's imitation and chose the more reasonable approach with Grandpa.
A few guidelines for dealing with children who whine are:
* Remain calm.
* Point out what the child is doing and why it is not acceptable.
* Use humor, but never in a degrading manner.
* Suggest ways for the child to rephrase the statement.
* Compliment children who are learning to abandon whining in favor of a more reasonable approach.
* Establish clear expectations.
When parents have established clear rules and expectations, children are less likely to attempt to push parents to give in to their unreasonable demands. Clear expectations prevent recurring confrontations, such as the perennial argument at the checkout counter: ''I want a candy bar. Can I please have a candy bar? Please? Please?'' When parents have explained ahead of time that candy is placed at the checkout line to tempt people into last-minute impulse buying - that ''this is a trick we are not going to fall for!'' - children understand both the expectation and the reason behind it, and they are less likely to beg. In this kind of situation a parent may feel pressured to end the child's unpleasant public display by giving in. Yet firm, patient insistence on the prearranged guideline allows both parent and child to benefit in the long run.
When parents remain calm and correct whiny actions in a loving, patient way, children learn that a reasonable approach is more effective. They are able to choose for themselves a pattern of behavior that is both considerate and practical, thus bringing greater harmony to the entire family.