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Curing a whiney 4-year-old — Good Parenting

Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011Curing a whiney 4-year-old — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

We have a 4-year-old daughter who seems to whine before speaking if she needs something. My wife tends to ignore it – maybe she tunes it out to get through more of the day with our daughter than I have to, or maybe our sweet and sour little girl only does it around me. In any event, it grates on me like nails on a blackboard. Why does she do this? Can it be cured?

Irritated with Hands Over My Ears

Don’t miss last week’s column Think through your threats — Good Parenting

Dear Irritated with HOME,

A whine usually comes from a place of helplessness. The best way to avoid continued whining is to address the need for help as quickly, willingly, and effectively as possible. I have seen a child’s meek request escalate to louder and stronger whines which finally exert a reaction from the adult way out of proportion to the original request. In the end, the child may be scolded with, “I’m not getting you anything if that’s the way you’re going to ask.” Whining can be avoided with attentive supervision given to a young child so that needs for food, drink, exercise, rest, comfort, attention, and fun do not reach a state of emergency.

The pattern you describe, in which whining becomes the first means of requesting something from an adult, can occur if needs are not anticipated or at least readily met when the child first expresses her need. She has accepted that it’s not going to be easy, or maybe it’s not even going to be possible, to have her need met. “You’re probably going to tell me I’m annoying you so I don’t even know why I’m asking. I wish I didn’t need to go through you to get what I need.” Another factor, I presume, is that you see more of your daughter in the evenings, by which time she (and you) may be fatigued. (By the same token, a child who is becoming ill is very likely to be whiney.)

You can change this family pattern be reviewing and preparing for your daughter’s needs. Teach her how to get some of the things she still relies on her gown-ups for. For example, there should be ample food and drink that she can access without having to go through you. Children’s digestive systems require more regular food and drink than an adult’s. So if there isn’t a well-timed snack and drink schedule in her day, she can be taught to help herself in the kitchen when her hunger and thirst alarms go off. Adults can make portion size containers such as filling a lidded cup with water, juice or milk, using snack-size baggies or plastic boxes for finger foods (raw veggies, cut fruit, dry cereal, whole grain crackers), and as she gets more dexterous, she can be taught how to pour for herself and reclose cereal and cracker packages.

By the time she was 5, my daughter could put frozen banana slices (from a container I had set in the freezer the night before) and a dollop of plain yogurt in the food processor to make herself and her brother smoothies. A 4-year-old can be trained to anticipate thirst and hunger such that getting ready for an outing includes packing provisions. Time invested in teaching children how to be independent in the kitchen is a good investment in their growing competence — which equates to less pestering for you to make food and drink happen.

Other skills that you can support include dressing, bathing, and caring for her toys. See that her things are accessible for her height and dexterity. Her lowest dresser drawers can contain choices of both underwear and seasonal clothing with the surplus stored in the higher drawers for you to use for re-stocking the lower ones as needed. You can label the lower drawers for her – with a drawing or photo to accompany the words. Similarly the playthings, bath things, etc. that she needs should be in her reach. Too many toys cause a feeling of helplessness at clean up time. This is easily avoided with regular analysis of what she plays with the most and rotating the rest through out-of-reach storage.

The more you support your daughter’s needs and growing independence the less plaintive whining you will hear.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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