Fussing, Whining, Rudeness, and Tantrums
By Michael Kauper  

To feel good about your child, to feel love and respect, and for the child to sense that you feel love and respect, you must enforce polite, decent, and obedient behavior. If you allow your child to treat you badly, you their parent may still love your child, but you may no longer LIKE your child.

   Parenting successfully seems to require an acceptance of contradictions. A great example is in the area of sound nutrition. Devoted parents who want the best nutrition for their child must be willing to calmly accept their child's choice to be hungry when the child refuses nutritious food.

   Because we want so much to see them well fed, we are tempted to substitute a preferred food when the child snubs nutritious offerings. This will reinforce the behavior of refusing nutritious offerings. If we give in to whining, fussing, or tantrums over food which is not “liked”, we risk raising a child who is picky, demanding, and malnourished.

   The paradox is that if we allow our concern that the child be well fed to unduly influence parenting decisions then in the long run the child may learn to eat poorly.

   Whining, complaining, demanding or rudeness may be met with sympathy and calm confidence, and the parent may offer distraction or a new activity, but she/he must not give in to demands made during whining. Giving in reinforces the whining or rudeness and makes it more likely to recur.

   The above food example can be generalized to other situations. If you find your child often fussing, whining, snarling, or involved in a tantrum, then your child is probably getting some reward or benefit from the obnoxious behavior. Somehow, and in spite of good intentions, the adults are encouraging the problem behavior.

   Don't feel guilty. Every caregiver sometimes encourages the opposite of what they want. In addition, all children experiment with rebellion. Every healthy normal childhood includes children doing stuff we have to teach them not to do. This is part of the learning process for both the kids and their caregivers. This begs the question how much coercive behavior is acceptable.

   In our child care home, with approximately 15 children, we see on average less than one tantrum a month. As you may have guessed, these somewhat rare tantrums are most often performed by two year olds. A tantrum by an older child is more unusual, and would suggest a problem at home or day care. 

   A very few of our children may have tantrums weekly or daily. When that happens, we try the scientific method. We observe, analyze, hypothesize, and experiment with solutions. We expect to succeed at helping the child. Usually, we do succeed, eventually, but some children we never successfully help.

   Here at day care when we tell the children to clean up toys or eat their vegetables, we expect a pleasant response. Even if the child chooses to protest or negotiate, we insist on courtesy. Pouting, groaning, growling or rudeness are met with sanctions. Even small rebellions are important, because they foreshadow far greater rebellions. If we ignore a small challenge, we soon get treated to a greater challenge. We need not be harsh or angry, but we must be consistent and reliable.

   When working with a child who is using fussing, whining, rudeness, or tantrums, the first rule is that you must not give in. The aversive behavior must not be successful. The second rule, nearly as important, is that you must take positive action to deal with the behavior. 

   What you must NOT do is give in or withhold the child's punishment just because the child suddenly agrees to cooperate, or starts to cry, or threatens the adult with anger. We must be honest and reliable. If I tell a child that I will give them a punishment if the child does such and such, then I must give the punishment, even if the child appears to give in at the last minute. Otherwise I am teaching the child that I am unreliable, that I am unable to support the child's good behavior, and prevent bad behavior. That scares the child.

   We must be able to follow thru even when our kids hit us with anger, threats, rudeness, or tears. You are imposing your values on your child. I am sorry about that, but raising children is not really a democratic activity. We can respect and value our child's individuality and still teach them manners, courtesy, respect, and self control.

   This next idea is extremely important:  please pinch yourself, take a deep breath, and read this carefully. To feel good about your child, to feel love and respect, and for the child to know that you feel love and respect, you must enforce polite, decent,  obedient behavior. If you allow your child to treat you badly, you their parent may still love your child, but you may no longer LIKE your child. Ouch!

   Here comes another paradox. In order to have a child who is truly free, who can be herself in a comfortable manner, she must gradually free herself of the need or desire to control her parents and other authorities through coercion. She must learn to distinguish needs from wants! You must teach that distinction to your child. You as the parent are in charge, and you cannot escape.

   To give your child what he or she really needs, you must sometimes go against what they say they want. That is a scary thought, hinting at what an awesome responsibility parenting really is. If we fully understood parenting, fewer of us might be brave enough to try it!

   Children who succeed at coercion become dominated by their involvement in coercion. They frown and fuss even when the situation ought to be to their liking. These children will complain, fight, or scream about tiny or inconsequential circumstances. We see this every day.

   A child who is habitually involved with pushing her or his parents about seems to pick fights almost like an athlete who is staying in training. Kids who have been waiting with anticipation for their parents to pick them up from day care, will scream, fight, and refuse to leave once their parent arrives. Kids who care little about their clothes, will torture their parents endlessly about clothing choices because they feel more comfortable and secure relating to their parents through coercion.

A child who is allowed to be  rude, obnoxious,  disobedient, or cruel, comes to understand that her parents want her to be awful. She may believe that her parents may not love her or accept her unless she is awful.

   A child in this situation understands that her parents want her to relate to them via scowls, demands, tears, groans and tantrums. You the parent may protest that you absolutely do NOT want your child to be spoiled, rude, obnoxious, whiny or demanding. However, if you reinforce those behaviors in your child, she will come to understand that is exactly what you want. And, to add insult to injury, she will eventually, as an adult, blame you for teaching her to be a whiner or a spoiled brat.

    How, you may ask, am I teaching my beloved child to be a little monster? What am I doing to reinforce the snarling, whining, crying, or tantrums? Actually, I don't know. You may have to figure that part out on your own! Are you fussing, whining, or being rude to your child? Are you allowing her to say no, then yes, then no, then yes, over and over? Are you letting your child "drag it out" when you really need to take clear action to end the battle, or move on?

   Perhaps you are being unreliable, telling your child about what you will (or won't) do, and then failing to follow through. One of the most hurtful ways to raise a child is to make promises, over and over, that we do not keep. "If you don't get dressed, I am going to leave without you."  "If you are rude to me, we will not go."  "If you will not get dressed, I will dress you myself."  "We have to go now!"  "If you want seconds at the dinner table, you must ask me politely."  "If you want most anything, you must first ask me politely!"   When you make such statements as these, are you reliable? Do you follow thru?

   When we fail to follow our statements with actions, we teach the child to behave poorly. By avoiding a short term a fight, a struggle, a brief disappointment, or the effort of planning, we actually make our parenting job harder, in the long term, and we let our children down.

   This is bad for the parents because it is exhausting. It is even worse for the child because their more genuine interests or desires are masked or confused. A simple example is a child who fights about preparing to go to the park, on a walk, or to the zoo even though they will later have a great time. 

   Another example might be getting ready for child care. Many kids are horrible to their parents until their parents are safely out of sight, and then magically, with no visible effort, transform into little angels.

   A more subtle case is a child who enjoys math or language yet refuses to learn arithmetic or reading from their parents because of the ingrained habit of rebellion. Dominating their parents, keeping their parents “in line”, is more important to them than satisfying their desire to learn.

   The old saying is perfectly correct. Kids are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face. Paradoxically, this is actually a correct decision on the part of the child. Children need clear social and ethical guidance even more than they need the more superficial trappings of culture, such as reading and arithmetic. Kids who are to some extent out of control are to about that same extent being neglected.

   Our kids will kick up a fuss until we do our job, as best we can anyway. They will misbehave until we get our act together and give them the sense of predictability, reliability, and security which they absolutely need to grow up, and eventually be brave enough to be free, independent, and strong.

   For your child to be free to “be herself”, the parents must insist on cheerful, civilized and cooperative behavior. Permissiveness defeats freedom.

   Therefore, parents (and other care givers) need to decide what their limits are. How much pouting, crying, and shouting is OK?  What do you want to experience as normal? Living with more than you wish to tolerate is, well, intolerable, for you and your kids.

How can you feel happy about having children if you are not in fact happy with your children?

   I have been thinking about a hierarchy of coercion, from most coercive to least. These are ways that people get what they want. Some of these "ways" are illegal or unethical. My compilation is intended to be realistic, and to make you think. Here is my working list.

1. Violence
2. Extortion
3. Yelling and screaming
4. Harassment
5. Threats
6. Bribery
7. Crying
8. Whining
9. Pouting
10. Peer pressure
11. Paying
12. Taking turns
13. Cooperation
14. Persuasion
15. Leadership

  The ethics of these behaviors may be situation dependent. Any of them, even the nastiest, might be permissible under some circumstances. If you don't believe that coercion is sometimes necessary, then you probably haven't administered eye drops to a two-year-old.

  Note that crying, whining, and pouting are in the middle of the above list. There are worse ways for a person to get what they want. Whining has a long and venerable tradition.

  In one family, shouting may be a great family tradition, and whining may be viewed as disgusting. In another family, shouting or tantrums are way too violent, but a persistent whine is a respectable way to make your desires known. What are your limits, what are your preferences, what would feel ideal to you? If your child were perfect, how would she or he behave?

  What are some options for correcting or “adjusting” your child's behavior? We can look at our choices in several different ways. For example, we can sort techniques along the time stream into things we do before the child's behavior, during the behavior, and after the behavior.

  Things we do before the behavior are wonderful. Preemptive actions often involve the least stress and they make us look like great care givers, full of insight and compassion. This realm includes quality physical care, room arrangement, pre-planned activities, enough materials to go around, etc.

  Another thing you can do before the behavior, is planning your response to a possible behavior should that behavior occur. You try to decide in advance what you will do if thus-and-so happens. If the kids nag excessively in the grocery store, you will cut your trip short, or you will give all of them as many cookies as they want, or you will ___________ (fill in the blank).

  How many chances will you give the kids before you decide that they have misbehaved and take the action you have planned?

  Actions you might take during the misbehavior could include looking, glaring, scolding, spanking, yelling, distracting, reasoning, lecturing, explaining, begging, threatening, bribing, laughing, teasing, hurrying, changing direction, leaving, ending the activity, taking the child home, going outdoors, starting a new activity, or some combination of the above.

  After the behavior, you might ask someone for advice, read a book, talk to the child, practice doing it over more successfully, or avoid the situation which brought on the behavior.

  Another way to sort responses to behavior would be according to the level of coercion. We can recycle the list we already made of things people do to get what they want. (See above.)

  Here is another list for you to think about. Call it the elements of discipline:

1. Setting an example
2. Peer pressure
3. Teaching
4. Explanations
5. Rewards
6. Bribery
7. Practice
8. Analysis
9. Affection
10. Punishment

   Successful discipline is about 5% punishment on an ongoing basis. Remedial discipline is what happens when the caregiver is trying to make up for lost ground.  The child's needs during “retraining” may vary tremendously.  A parent or caregiver may use punishment at first to establish your credibility, authority, and (most important) reliability. Sometimes to break up a persistent cycle of punishment, misbehavior, punishment, misbehavior, the caregiver must avoid all punishment, and stick to other means.

  Here are a few aphorisms and  pithy generalizations to keep in mind when you feel stuck.

• Children cry, fuss, whine and have tantrums most often to coerce and pressure their caregivers. If a child is actually hurt, hungry, or scared, that is a different story, and you will probably know.

• Good discipline helps your child feel better and be happy more of the time. 

• When your discipline is strong and effective, you rarely (if ever) need to punish the child.

• If you do punish your children, you must find punishments that are not worse for you than they are for the child..

• Escalate faster than your children. Mean business, and follow through.

• Paradoxically, being willing to punish or be tough is essential to arriving at a place where punishment becomes rare.

• Enforcing clear and firm standards for your child(ren) is a central job requirement for any parent who wants to be respectful, a good listener, and give their child the best life you can imagine. (Please note that I am talking about you, the parent, being respectful of your kids, listening to your kids, and working hard to be a good parent.)

• Tell the kids what you want them to do and try to be specific. 

• Ignore the questions “Why can't I do it?” and "Why must I do it?" until the kids are at least 18 years old. (When a child asks "Why?", he or she is most often stalling or rebelling.  If you wish to explain why, find a time other than during a fight, or teach your child why slowly over time.)

• If your child is having trouble with a normal and beneficial activity, such as dressing, chores, or good manners, do not avoid the activity. Do that activity more. Practice, practice, practice.

• Raising children is a lot of work and totally inconvenient. If you plan for this and accept it up front, you will have more time and patience to enjoy the process.

• Teach them every day and every chance to be brave, helpful, courteous, hard working and kind. Notice and comment when they are being good or successful or wonderful.

• Try something new. Reassure yourself and your children that you will not give up on them.

• Plan your strategy before the problem begins. If they fight in the store, what will you do?

• If your child is out of control, limit her choices, make their environment smaller and simpler.

• Tell the truth. If you say you are going to reward or punish a behavior, do it.

  I will close this essay with another parenting paradox. If you want your child to learn how to be empathetic, kind, and settle disagreements without violence, you must allow them to experience a certain amount of fighting, hitting, being hit, and generally undesirable violence. To read more, go to my essay "Hitting, Grabbing, Biting and Name Calling!". Ouch!

Parenting is hard work, but raising a child is also fun and rewarding. You owe it to yourself and your child to do everything in your power to see that she treats you, her parents, and others, with respect, courage, honesty, and helpfulness.

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rev. 3.1, 02-08-2011