The Whining Game

August 28, 2012 at 7:11 am (Play Time, Positive Discipline)

I remember once a long time ago–I was quite small–I was in the car with my family. I sat in the backseat with my brother, saying something to my parents who were up front, and they told me to stop whining.

I don’t remember what I was unhappy about right then, but I do remember this: I was baffled. I didn’t know what they meant. I didn’t notice there was anything different about my voice; I thought I was just telling them something.

I remember going quiet after that, replaying my words in my head and trying figure out what ‘whining’ was. You see, I had heard of whining before. I just didn’t know how to define it and how to know if I was doing it.

I never said anything about it. I just kept the question with me over the years and tried to solidify my own answer. What is whining? It seems like such an unusual situation…but as a kid, I never felt confident of the definition of this word!

Then I had kids of my own. Then I knew for sure. I never did have anyone to explain it to me, but when you’re on the receiving end of whining, you know.

The thing is, I still remember that uncertain feleing I had…to be told you’re whining, but not understand what it is you’re doing that’s whining. Is it different than complaining? Venting? Sharing unpleasant feelings? I wanted to make sure my kids didn’t go through the confusion I did. I wanted to define it for them. Clear things up a bit. I wanted to get everyone on the same page so we all know what we’re talking about.

Once, when JJ was about 3 and Elia was 4, we started the Whining Game. It went  like this:

Me: Hey you guys, you know how sometimes you might hear me talk about whining? Or that someone is whining?

Them: Yeah.

Me: Do you know what that means? Do you know what whining is?

Elia: Um…it’s kind of like you’re mad?

Me: Yeah…or frustrated, or sad, or angry, or all of them at the same time.

Them: Yeah!

Me: And sometimes when you feel like that, you kind of feel like crying?

Them: Yeah.

Me: And sometimes you cry but sometimes you’re still trying to talk, too. So the words come out kind of half-and-half.

Elia: Yeah, half crying and half talking at the same time.

Me: Yeah like this [over-the-top nasally whiny voice]: MOOOOOOOM, I DONT WANNA DO WHAT YOU WANT ME TO DOOOOOO…I WANNA DO WHAT I WANNA DOOOOO! [giggles] Hey about you do one.


JJ: [giggling] NOOOOOO!

Me: ….BUT I DON’T WAAAANT TOOOO! I JUST WANNA…Oh my gosh I can’t do it anymore. I’m annoying myself.

Them: Ahhhhha hahaha! Mom! [Hysterical laughter.]

Me: You win.

I’ve heard parents talk about their kids’ whiny stages, annoyed that everything that comes out of their mouths is said with a whine. And, remembering my 5-year-old self in the backseat of my parents’ car, my first thought is always, “Maybe they don’t know what it is.”

To help kids through whiny stages, I recommend that all parents and kids get on the same page about what whining is and what it sounds like to others, definitely in a fun way. Play the Whining Game. Be super annoying about it. And funny…aways be funny.

Then, when everyone’s clear, it’s easy to provide an alternative tone when you’re in the moment. When whining happens, you can say something like, “OK, I can hear in your voice that this bothers you. You know the whiney game we played? I can hear that voice in your words right now. So I know you’re upset. Try saying it this way instead: ‘Mom? I’m having a hard time with this. Will you help me?'”

It does take time to move out of a whiny stage. But it’s easier with some understanding. It’s easier to do things differently when you understand the differences.


  1. Mickie Berry said,

    I wish I’d understood this during the whiny stages with my daughter. It certainly would have been more respectful and careing.

  2. kim said,

    How early should we start the explanation… my daughter is 17 months and
    starting the whining phase… how early is too early?

    • Kelly said,

      Kim, it’s not too early to start teaching about tones of voice and feelings…you just might approach it differently for her young age. Instead of making it a game with some back-and-forth humor–something she’s not ready to “get” yet–you can just model appropriate tones. You don’t even need to tell her she’s “whining.”

      Keep it simple–articulate her feelings and provide an example for her to repeat:

      -“You’re upset…Say ‘Mom, can I please have a snack?'”.
      -“I can tell this bothers you…Say “No thank you, Mom.'”

      Whatever sentiment she is trying to communicate, just articulate it for her in a pleasant and calm voice that is appropriate to her level of language development. Maybe just one- or two-word responses will work for her (“Snack please?” or “No thanks.”) The idea is that she will repeat the same words right back to you. This kind of ‘mirroring’ game is one she’ll understand.

  3. Wendy68 said,

    it’s never to early! Well before my son was born, I remember hearing a friend telling her little boy “to use a happy voice”. I started to say it to mine when he was maybe a week old! As time went on, I kept using it as he built his understanding of what I meant through giving him the positive example. Now, if I need say it, he pauses, takes a breath, and tries very hard to say it again.
    It’s such an amazing opportunity – this age – where we can literally teach them how they can choose to respond to a situation.
    I also talk to my son about nagging – and such a delight when one day he said back to me “mama, stop nagging me”.. meaning he recognised what nagging meant!

  4. Claudia K. said,

    Wow, thanks. I really needed this reminder. I had 6 kids in my care today and I heard a lot of whining. I’m gonna bookmark this for a reminder 🙂

  5. Kelly said,

    I know what you mean…I think speaking to kids–even babies–in a baby voice is never very respectful. It somehow assumes they are “less than,” and not in need of the same respectful tone in which you would speak to adults. Which is so not true! I don’t think that’s a cause of whining, though. The causes of chronic whining run deeper than a case of imitation. It is verbal reflection of how a child is feeling, which is tied to certain needs being unmet; kids often have misguided ways of behaving to get their needs met. Whining is one behavior that manifests as a result of a child feeling ignored, unnoticed, uninvolved, disconnected, etc., and the child has a need to feel significant, useful, capable, or just a stronger sense of belonging. So if a family’s children are whining a lot, my guess is there is something else going on…an issue that runs a bit deeper than just their tone of voice. Often, it’s the tone of voice that speaks to a larger perspective of how they view parent-child relationships.

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