2009-09-17 / Church

Focus on the Family with Dr. James Dobson

Routine Whining Can Be Eliminated By Ignoring It

QUESTION: My four-year-old daughter, Karen, is a whiner. She rarely speaks in a normal voice anymore. How can I break her of this habit?

DR. DOBSON: There is a process called "extinction" that is very useful in situations like this. Here is how it works: any behavior that has been learned by reinforcement (i.e., by rewards) can be unlearned by withholding those rewards. It sounds complex, but the technique is simple and very applicable to Karen's problem.

Why do you think she whines instead of speaking in a normal voice? Because you have rewarded that sound by letting it get your attention! As long as Karen is speaking in her usual voice you are too busy to listen to her. Like most toddlers, she probably babbles all day long, so you have often tuned out most of her verbiage. But when she speaks in a grating, irritating, obnoxious tone, you turn to see what is wrong. Therefore, Karen's whining brings results; her normal voice does not, and she becomes a whiner.

In order to break the habit of whining, you must simply reverse the process. You should begin by saying, "I can't hear you because you're whining, Karen. I have funny ears; they just can't hear whining." After this message has been passed along for a day or two, you should show no indication of having heard a moantone. You should then offer immediate attention to anything she says in a normal voice. If this control of reward is applied properly, I guarantee it to achieve the desired results. Most human learning is based on this principle, and the consequences are certain and definite. Of course, Grandma and Uncle Albert may continue to reinforce the behavior you are trying to eliminate, and they can keep it alive.

QUESTION: My husband is a good man, but he gets angry at the kids and says things that he later regrets. Help me convince him to be careful about these off-thecuff comments.

DR. DOBSON: Psychologist and author Abraham Maslow once said, "It takes nine affirming comments to make up for each critical comment we give to our children." I believe he is right. All normal human beings respond negatively to criticism and rejection. Conversely, some of us crave affirmation so much that we'll do almost anything to get it.

Children are especially vulnerable to those who use affirmation to manipulate them. As someone said, "Whoever gives your kids praise and attention has power over them." That could be a drug dealer, a gang member or anyone who could harm them. People with evil intentions know how to use praise to get what they want from lonely kids. This is, in fact, the technique routinely used by pedophiles to abuse their victims sexually.

A highly skilled pedophile can enter a room full of children and instantly spot those who are vulnerable to affirmation. They can have those needy kids under their control in five minutes or less.

All human beings have deep psychological needs for love, belonging and affection. If you don't meet those longings in your children, I can assure you someone else will.

QUESTION: What would you say to my husband and me? We are doing far too much disciplining of our kids. Is there another way to encourage them to cooperate?

DR. DOBSON: The best way to get children to do what you want is to spend time with them before disciplinary problems occur, having fun together and enjoying mutual laughter and joy. When those moments of love and closeness happen, kids are not as tempted to challenge and test the limits. Many confrontations can be avoided by building friendships with kids and thereby making them want to cooperate at home. It sure beats anger as a motivator of little ones!

Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 (www.focusonthefamily.org).

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