LaGrange Healthy Families

Whining, Bad Words, Name Calling, Grumbling, Talking Back
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How can a sound as irritating as whining come from such adorable little people? It combines pleading, demanding, pestering, and nagging, interspersed with sniffles and sobs. It escalates in pitch until either the whiner wears out (this can take a long time) or the listener wears down (this takes only a short time).

WHY KIDS WHINE. Most children whine sometime between 2 and four years as they are trying out various voices for their effect on listeners. The reason they stick with it so long is they often find it works like a charm. Depending on the audience's response, they will either go on to develop more annoying sounds or refine their tone to more pleasant speech.

Here's how to mute the whiner:

Note what circumstances bring on the whine and keep ahead of your child. If your child whines every time you get on the phone, busy her before you make the call. If whining occurs when a child is tired or bored, correcting the circumstances will correct the whine. Oftentimes responding promptly to your child wards off a whine so that the child does not have to resort to an irritating voice to get through to you.

Don't allow the whine to escalate. At the first syllable, if you suspect the whining tone of voice is coming say, "Stop! I don't listen to your nagging voice," and walk away. Then turn around, look at your child, and say, "But I listen to your nice voice."

Try "This is not the whining room. If you want to whine, go to another room."

Squelch whining at the first whimper, and redirect the child's voice to a more pleasant ring. Otherwise, you run the risk of letting the whine wear you down until you surrender -- a concession that only prolongs the whining stage. Once the child realizes the whine will get her nowhere, it will stop. You may actually wind up giving the child what she wanted once her nice voice comes back and she can tell you her wish calmly and politely.

Another way to win over a whiner is to change the subject. Keep on talking and distract the whining child into other interests, "Oh, look at this pretty flower. Let's see what it smells like." You're letting the child know that whining doesn't bother you.

If whining persists, replay for your child how unpleasant it sounds, being careful not to mock. Don't do this when you are both emotional. Do it at a calm time. Whine back: "Which do you like, Mommy's sour voice ('I don't wanna make supper') or Mommy's sweet voice ('Gosh, I'm tired. I could use some help')?" Once your child learns that whining doesn't work (and her language skills improve), whining will be a sound of the past.



Remember your reaction the first time your four-year-old used a four-letter word? Did your mouth drop open, but with no sound coming out? Did you drop your fork at the dinner table? Did your ears turn red? To growing children, toilet talk is as curious as the functions it stands for. To children words are not "dirty" until you tell them so. Be prepared for colorful words to come out of children's mouths around age four.

Children pick up words from all over and try them out. Whether or not they continue to use them depends on how frequently they hear them and the effect these words have on their audience. Kids won't even know what some of the words they hear mean (i.e., the "f-word"). That's why it's wise not to overreact. This stage will pass. Here's how to deal with toilet talk.

Consider the source. A five-year-old was playing innocently near a group of older female relatives. Suddenly out came a word that silenced the crowd. As the embarrassed mother rushed to hush the little mouth, the great- aunt explained, "He talks just like his dad." Lessen your child's exposure to profanity. Clean up your own language, supervise what comes out of the mouths of your child's friends, and choose television programs carefully.

Explain to your child, "Some words are not nice to hear. There are so many nice words, let's hear them instead." Explain that some words are not nice to use in certain places. "If you have to go poop at church, come and whisper in Mommy's ear. Or ask to 'go to the bathroom, please'."

Provide alternatives. If your child by reflex uses obscenities when angry, practice alternative reactions: "I hit my finger -- ouch!" Words release tension, so model alternatives. Try the classics: "darn," "ow," "heck," "shoot," "phooey..." Or use some more original epithets: "fiddlesticks," "Christopher Columbus."

Ignore. Children learn what words have shock value, and the more the audience reacts the more an encore is likely. After you're sure your child understands the houserules and that certain words are not allowed in public, ignore an occasional lapse. Intensify your praise for nicer alternatives.

For older children, set the standard of language that you will allow in your home, and stick to it. If your seven-year-old comes in using the "F- word" you should sit down with him and explain exactly why it's offensive.

"You imbecile!" yelled fourteen-year-old Mary at her annoying seven-year-old brother, Billy. Now Billy didn't know what an "imbecile" was, but by the tone of his sister's voice he knew he didn't want to be one.

What's in a name? The point is not so much the word the child uses -- much of the time kids don't know what their insults mean. The deeper issue is insensitivity to another's feelings. Part of discipline is helping your child learn empathy. Help her imagine how the other person feels when he is called that name. Appeal to her sensitivity to her own feelings and those of others as the first step in changing the behavior. Bear in mind that a mocking voice; like saying "I love you" in a way that would make someone feel small; can be just as hurtful.

Model an apology. Even adults sometimes resort to name- calling. We've caught ourselves occasionally yelling, "You're being a brat!" in frustration when a child is being willful. If your children hear a steady stream of "you're lazy," or "you're stupid," they will pick up on the habit, since it seems to be an acceptable way for parents to vent emotion. Name- calling is a putdown and it deserves an apology that builds the child back up. When we hear that "brat" word come out of our mouths, we back up, hug the child, ask her to forgive the name-calling, and reassure her that we love her and think well of her. Then we talk about how we don't like what she did, and we go on to correct her behavior.

Pull up putdowns. To preserve the self-esteem of fragile children, one of your jobs as house disciplinarian is to patrol your domain and stamp out put-downs. Point out put-downs the instant you hear them: "That's a put-down." If your children already know that you won't tolerate put- downs in your family, they simply need a reminder, not a sermon or a tirade. Elaine told her children how devastating these statements are, especially to younger children. She explained how calling someone an unkind name makes them angry and therefore completely unwilling to change the behavior that triggered the name calling. She instructed: "Instead of yelling 'you're stupid' at your little brother, get down at his level, look him square in the eyes and firmly say 'That was a stupid thing to do, and I know you're smarter than that. Now help me clean up the mess'." (Hopefully, parents realize this is a wonderful line for them to use also.) This not only stops the argument before it starts, it also models alternatives to name-calling for the little brother to use when playing with his friends.

Garbage in, garbage out. To mute what comes out of the mouths of children, control what goes into their ears. Certain words get into a child's memory and seem to stick forever. Even though we carefully police our television, somehow our children managed to be exposed to Beavis and Butthead, in our opinion one of the most denigrating and potentially dangerous shows ever to get into the minds of kids -- a major put-down to human intelligence. Over the next few weeks we heard "butthead" as if it were a socially-acceptable form of direct address. Once we stopped overreacting and realized that the actual meaning of the word to kids and teens is something like "dumb" or "crude", the word lost its punch and we ignored it (but still banned the show itself). Eventually, the word "butthead" died a slow death, at least in the confines of our home.

In the past, one way to punish children for name-calling has been to make them write "I will not say butthead" a hundred times. We discourage this method because it plants the word even deeper into a child's memory. (After reading this section, what word do you remember the most?) A better correction would be to have the name-caller write a note of apology, without using the offensive name.


Are you tired of asking your child to do something -- over and over again -- and all you get is a grumble? Or your child obeys, but reluctantly, and not without protest. Neither children nor adults always do things with a cheerful spirit, but there are ways to make children's attitudes easier to live with.

Model cheerfulness. When your child brings you a reasonable request, give your child the message, "Sure, Mary, I'm glad to please you!" -- even though her request is inconvenient and you are less than thrilled about driving her to the pool for the third day in a row. Getting a "glad to do it" response makes the child happy she asked and models cheerfulness for the next time you ask the child for help.

Mirror grumbling. If your child grumbles about doing a task, help him to understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of a grumbled response: "For the next few hours I'm going to be a grumble-puss." After your child gets a grumbling response from you, he will get the point that it's no fun to be around a crank.

Time-out the grumbler. "Johnny, I expect you to be agreeable when I ask you to do something -- like I am when you ask me. Please go sit in the other room for five minutes and think about how grumbling makes everybody feel. When you've decided to quit grumbling, come and tell me about it. Our home would be no fun to live in if everybody grumbled."

Minimize grumble times. Nip grumbles in the bud before they become part of a child's personality. "Billy, please help Mommy set the table." "Why do I have to do everything?" Billy protests, and he clicks on his litany of complaints. At the first hint of a grumble, call it what it is: "That's a grumble. I don't want to listen to it." The use of job charts is the best way to keep track of who does what and when, so no one "always has to do everything." We have used motivational charts to weed out grumbles from the garden of childhood.

Cheering up the grump. Everyone is entitled to be crabby once in a while, but when it goes on and on, it's time for parents to step in. Grumpy children are no fun for themselves or others. Here's how to perk up the grouch.

Figure out why the child is grumpy. Some children are grouchy at certain times of the day. The morning grouch may need time, space, and breakfast to re- enter the world after a night's sleep, or a bit of humor to lift still-tired spirits. The late-morning grump may be tired or hungry, a signal for a nap or an early lunch. The after-school crank may need a similar tonic, an energizing snack and a brief nap to recuperate from common after-school ailments, such as a school bus headache, tension build-up, or even boredom following all the stimulation of the classroom. The evening crab is probably just worn out and either needs a late afternoon nap or an earlier bedtime. All of the above may just need to be left alone to grump for a while and nothing else. Respect that, and have as your only request that family harmony not be upset.

If your previously pleasing child suddenly turns into a grouch, suspect an illness, or a recent upset in her life. If something is gnawing at her, the internal anger will affect her external mood. Time to do some searching for the reason why your sweet child turned sour. Direct questioning will probably not work as well as just being available to listen when she's ready to talk. Connected kids usually don't wait too long to seek out a listening ear. Remember, sensitivity is what connected kids understand.

Busy the grump. A wise preschool director had a favorite motto: "Boredom is a choice." We adopted her motto when Peter began using "I'm bored" a lot. We let Peter know that he was responsible for his own moods. If he didn't pick up the subtle hint, we'd make it more obvious: "Pete, you have lots of choices -- help me with the dishes, then we'll bake cookies; get out your new books from the library; or go see if your friends are playing outside." If he refused to choose something to do, we sent him off to another room to be bored on his own. One way or another, he got busy doing something he really enjoyed.

Humor the grump. Try these tactics: "Sally has a grumpy face. I sure miss the happy face. Let's see if we can paint one on." Then stroke your child's face pretending to color away the frown. Children like this special touch, and a laugh loosens up the smile muscles in a tight face. (This will probably not work for morning grumps.)

Don't squelch every crabby moment. The child's emotions are a gauge of what's going on inside. Just as you can't safely drive your car without gauges, you can't sensitively care for a child who doesn't show emotion. Let your child know: "It's okay to feel yucky. Tell us what's bothering you, because talking about it will help you feel better." "It's okay to gripe sometimes if you don't really want to do something, but let me know how you feel using a nicer voice." "I love you even when you're grumpy. I'd rather see a real grumpy face (and hear you talk about it) than see a phony happy face."

Does your child always demand the last word? "Mary, please do the dishes." "Mom, I can't. I've got homework." "Doing the dishes is your job isn't it?" "Yes, but I have a test tomorrow." "Dishes only take ten minutes. Please be done by the time I get back." "It'll be your fault if I get an F." Sound familiar? Parents and children often jab at each other ping-pong style, and the conversation escalates into confrontation if neither stops to understand the other's viewpoint. Children are put on the defensive; parents feel their authority is being challenged. Nobody wins. Talking back should never become disrespectful. A respectful form of disagreement reveals that your child is willing -- and comfortable;communicating with you. Try these suggestions for the child who always answers back.

Expect respect. Parents' ears are quick to pick up disrespect ; keeping your tone respectful is not always easy, yet it is critical as a modeling tool. Occasional spurts of talking back need not be reprimanded, providing your child is not disrespectful. Expect talking back during developmental stages when your child shows spurts of independence. Having the last word helps the child solidify her position and reaffirm her independence. Unless it's a biggie or is clearly done to taunt you, chalk it up to normal development. A child needs to learn how to make his point without being rude. There is a fine line between disrespect and spunk.

Between seven and ten years of age, part of the normal development of a child is to protect their interests. They are developing a sense of fairness. Any comment or request from you that is perceived by them as unfair will cause them to naturally go on the defensive. One day I wrongly accused Matthew of dawdling while the rest of the family was in the car waiting for him. He was quick to defend himself. The reason why he had to go back in the house was to get his shoes. This was not talking back, but rather a developmentally appropriate comment from a child at a stage when he is learning a sense of social fairness. Being open to your child's defense (as long as it is respectful) conveys that you are willing to listen and respect the child's viewpoint. This sets the stage for opening avenues of communication with a teenager.

If things escalate into a shouting match, the talking back needs to be corrected. One day I overheard this dialogue between Martha and then eight- year-old Erin, who had talked back: "Erin, sit down. I want to talk with you," Martha said calmly. She had interrupted the battle by changing her tone of voice. The two power strugglers sat down. "I'm the mommy. You're the child. That doesn't mean I'm better than you, but I've lived a lot longer and I've learned a lot more. So I'm a bit wiser -- as you will be when you're a mommy. I understand why you don't want to clean your room, but I expect you to obey." Then came a hug. Finally, Martha told Erin, "I'll help you get started."

If the talking back is becoming disrespectful and more frequent, evaluate your whole parent-child relationship. Is your child angry about something in his situation or with you? Is a distance developing between the two of you? Have you been so preoccupied lately that your child has to shout and make a nuisance of herself to get you to listen to her? It's inventory time in the parenting business again. Here's an example. It was winter, a busy time in my pediatric practice, as well as deadline time for a book. These combined stresses left me less tolerant of the usual minor irritations that occur daily in the life of growing children.

Time-out from talking back. If you and your child are shouting at each other and a wall is going up between you, either send your child for time-out or take time-out yourself. There's no real communication going on anyway. Announce "I need a break" or tell your child to "sit there until you can talk with me respectfully." When you have both calmed down, open with an apology, if called for, to break the ice and take down the wall. Then ask to hear your child's viewpoint again (sometimes having to repeat her case lessens its importance to the child). Present your viewpoint and together arrive at a conclusion. End with a hug. Your child gets the message that disrespect (from both parties) is counterproductive and unwise.

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