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Handle Whining, Talking Back, and Other Annoying Kidspeak

Science has proven what parents already know: Whining is the most annoying sound on Earth.  A recent study published in the journal Evolutionary Biology found that when compared to other forms of speech, including baby talk, whining was uniquely distracting, causing listeners to tune in to the whining at the expense of other tasks. 

Another study from SUNY New Patlz found that whining was more distracting than the sound of a table saw to people attempting to solve a simple math problem. And then there’s backtalk, whining’s older and even more irritating sibling. Handling these frustrating utterances is a (sometimes daily) part of parenting. But thankfully, caregivers can work to help dial down distracting and disrespectful communications at home. Here’s how. 

Early Years: 0 to 5

Whine time

Per the Evolutionary Biology study, whining is so tough to ignore for a reason: it serves an evolutionary purpose, attracting a primary caregiver’s attention just as a child leaves babyhood. In other words, it’s a way to attract babying once a child no longer requires it. That’s also why whining peaks at ages three and four and why it’s so often directed at a child’s primary caregiver. How should we respond to this cringe-inducing but biologically normal behavior? First, remember that whining tots aren’t necessarily being disobedient, says licensed school social worker Talya Mazor of Triangle Counseling. “It’s easy to think that children are being uncooperative when they’re really just acting their age!” she notes. “Good behavior is encouraged through positive parenting strategies such as developing strong and affectionate parent-child relationships, offering descriptive praise, and giving attention to positive behavior.”

Elementary Years: 6 to 12

Sounding off

You’re waiting at home for your fifth grader to step off the school bus, eager to hear about their big test that day. After your child has arrived home and shed their backpack and coat, you gently inquire about the test. Their eyes roll to the ceiling and they retort, “Um, how do you think?” before flouncing to their room and slamming the door. Disrespect often appears during elementary school as tweens begin to chafe at authority, test caregivers’ boundaries, and try out new social personas. But just because it’s normal doesn’t mean parents should let it go unchecked, says Mazor. First, listen to the message behind the words: “At this age, children are trying to grasp for some control in their lives. Backtalk is often an indicator of feeling disrespected, unheard, and powerless,” she says. It may also be a signal that parents should do more listening and less talking themselves. Mazor recommends family meetings as a tool to help tweens feel heard, build respectful communication skills through negotiation and turn-taking, and advocate for what they feel are fair rules and consequences. 

Teen Years: 13 to 18

School rules

While younger children often reserve whining and backtalk for their parents, teens might act out toward a teacher or authority figure as a way to appear tough in front of peers. While parents may be shocked to hear that their formerly angelic child told a teacher to “(blank) off,” it’s important to keep a level head, says Mazor.

Support the school’s disciplinary plan and don’t double-punish, doling out additional consequences at home; grounding your teen for mouthing off at school is redundant if a punishment was already given at school. Instead, allow the situation’s logical consequences to deliver the lesson. For example, when a teen displays a bad attitude toward a teacher, that teacher will be less likely to grant the teen an extension on homework. Here, too, parents can model appropriate behavior: Don’t badmouth your kids’ teachers either or shirk their school’s rules, even ones you don’t happen to like. This parental self-discipline demonstrates to teens that there are some rules we all need to follow, whether we like it or not.

Malia is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.

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