Winning the War on Whining.

September 8, 2009

I’ve joked a bit that I should be on “Supernanny” when I manage such feats as getting a not-quite 3 year old who has just recently mastered potty training to pee in a cup at the doctor’s office on the first try, but mostly, I’m kidding. The world is full of excellent nannies, and the ones who end up on reality TV have quite a bit more experience than I do! Maybe I’m selling myself short though – how many 28 year olds have 14 years of experience with childcare? I could definitely be Supernanny.

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I watched the original Supernanny last night for the first time since I started nannying full-time. And unlike that other nanny show – Nanny 911 – rather than agreeing with the experts, I found myself utterly aghast at Jo’s suggestions to a family regarding their children’s whining. Whining is certainly one of the most irritating behaviors in anyone – not limited to children! Of course, you can’t go up to adults and ask them to stop whining, but you can reinforce in children who are under your care that this is not an effective communication tool.

Now, I’m a huge proponent of positive re-inforcement over negative re-inforcement, and this goes for whining as well as anything else. Jo Frost advocates for Time Outs and/or the “naughty step” and this may work for some families, but it’s not at all how I operate. I’ve found in my own work that “Time Out” is made totally unnecessary if you’re able to step in before the situation gets out of control and if the child is regularly praised for what s/he should be doing rather than scolded for what s/he’s doing wrong.

In the specific case of whining, it’s very simple to turn negative re-inforcement for whining into positive re-inforcement for not whining. This is one of the areas where my stubborn-ness is an asset in nannying, whereas in other occupations it’s been a considerable drawback. In an exchange because a child is whining because s/he wants something, it’s quite easy to say “Sweetheart, I need you to ask me nicely. Can you think of a nicer way to ask?” which is usually how I start.

Upon continued whining, I stay calm and in my best “Nanny voice” which is the embodiment of firm sweetness (I guess it’s kind of like Jell-O), I make myself clearer. A lot of effective communication with children involves making observational statements, which to us adults is a lot like stating the obvious – what we forget is that it’s not at all obvious to a child. So, on my second request to stop whining, I specifically ask that the child ask me again without whining. Usually phrased as “Wow. You’re still using a whining voice. I need you to ask me again without whining, please.”

Note the “please.” I say “please” 9,000,000 times per day. Any request I make of a child includes the word please. Up to and including “Stop hitting your brother please.” “Don’t touch the stove, please.” I stand firm – please is not an invitation for discussion, but rather a mark of respect. I believe that the only way to teach a child respect is to treat that child with the respect you expect. I want children to learn how to ask for things politely, so I use my best manners when I have to give them direction.

Anyhow, this repeats until the request is made without whining. Then, immediately, before anything else happens, I thank the child for asking without whining. “Oh, thank you so much for asking me with a big kid voice! I’m so happy you asked without whining!”

Yes, it involves time and repetition, but no more so than a time out and with better results: at the end of the interaction, the child has communicated his/her problem and calmed down enough to stop whining. The adult can address the situation directly without the added headache of putting the child in Time Out, explaining the Time Out, and then dealing with the fallout that Time Out itself may have caused, as often children’s tantrums get worse when they are told that they have to go to the naughty step.

I couldn’t believe that in this segment, I heard Jo Frost advocate to a family that when their children whine, that they should mimic the child so that they can hear how ridiculous they sound. I thought I was watching Bizarro Nanny instead of Supernanny! I could never advocate that anyone do anything to mock or embarrass a child. Nor do I think it would actually work, and since children are themselves mimics, it seems to me that this could actually lead to more extreme whining to try and one-up their parents. Oh my.

I can attest that the one and only time I tried the “mimic method” as a last-resort with a child who was throwing a tantrum (as seen on Supernanny!), I was slapped in the face. I can also say that I totally deserved it. On the other hand… I can say that the method that I describe has worked for me in the past without anyone getting slapped. Give it a shot, perhaps something else will ultimately work better, but applied consistently, positive re-inforcement is marvelously powerful and is much simpler than having to set up and enforce a time out. Bonus, it works even in situations where your naughty step isn’t available!

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