Is kids whining a cross-cultural phenomenon?
September 13, 2017 6:11 AM   Subscribe

Is whining from young kids cross-cultural? I'm speaking specifically of any sort of wheedling, high pitched speaking designed to express negative emotion and desire at the same time. If it is, what are the theories for why young children do this as opposed to communicate in some other way? For reference, my kids are American English speakers who whine like it's their job.
posted by OmieWise to Human Relations (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
My kids are Canadian and they very rarely whine (they are 12 and 6).

I attribute this to three things:
1. The kids at their daycare generally didn't. I'm assuming this is mostly luck.
2. My husband and I don't whine, and we also are pretty hard core about tone of voice in our house...which I expect is about to blow up in our faces during adolescence :). We will stop family fun/events/etc (within reason, not like, child's own party) to discuss tone. This is mostly because I'm very sensitive to sound and so it's part of our day to modulate volume, etc.
3. When my kids ask for things directly we respond as quickly and positively as we can so they don't have to keep asking. I don't mean this in a smarmy way; during morning rush I can be focused on backpacks and miss someone asking me about pizza lunch so easily.

I was thinking about our media choices but both my kids loved Caillou so...huh.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:32 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

It seems some children whine in any culture, but of course not all children whine. When children whine a lot, it's most likely because they've found it to be effective. Whining is generally a juvenile thing.

Here's some science that gets a bit into the proposed (near)-universal nature of children whining, drawing comparisons to motherese.

We discovered not only that participants find whining speech more annoying than other forms of speech, but that it shares the salient acoustic characteristics found in motherese, namely increased pitch, slowed production, and exaggerated pitch contours. We think that this relationship is not random but may reflect the fact that the two forms of vocalization are the result of a similar accommodation to a universal human auditory sensitivity to the prosody of both forms of speech.

A bit more science on the acoustics of yelling vs. whining, and what they can imply about emotional state here. Finally here is some psychological research hinting at potential positives of this "negative" behavior.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:39 AM on September 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

I don't think I ever whined as a kid (can't be sure, of course), but I have caught myself, as an adult, picking up a whiny tone from someone else. So, anecdotally, I think it is transmissible.
posted by amtho at 6:39 AM on September 13, 2017

Yegads, I'd be horrified if my kids did that.
They may have tried once or twice and my answer was always a sharp "whining doesn't work on me."
If they ask for something more than once consecutively I also get pretty shirty.

So my kids' M.O. is to hedge a bit. "Mom, this is really nice, maybe we can get this...for Christmas." And then we'll talk about how nice that thing is, and sometimes I'll buy it now, sometimes for Christmas if they still want it ("because it's expensive") and sometimes not at all.

I do worry that my response is too authoritarian and I've made them into guess culture equivocators, who will have a hard time being assertive.

I do hear other people's kids whine sometimes, but not many kids seem to do it regularly. The one kid I knew who does this has parents who enjoy bargaining with her, so maybe that plays a part?

Source: Bilingual in German speaking country
posted by Omnomnom at 6:44 AM on September 13, 2017

I hear some British kids doing this. Ours don't, and I attribute it to parenting style. We've always insisted that if they want something, they need to ask for it in a speaking voice (the same goes for complaints/grievances). And they've been brought up to understand that if they're told 'no', they can expect the answer to remain 'no', no matter how often they ask.

In short, I don't think it's cultural, except insofar as parenting styles are cultural. I think it's just part of kids learning what behaviours most effectively achieve their desired outcome.
posted by pipeski at 6:46 AM on September 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think there is too much potential for reporting bias to get a realistic probability.
posted by waving at 6:51 AM on September 13, 2017 [16 favorites]

Mod note: Please note the questions here are: a) is whining from young kids cross-cultural? (does this happen in most different cultures?) and b) what are the theories for why young children do this? (is there research or studies that address this?) rather than do YOUR kids whine? how do you keep your kids from whining? or similar. Rather than a pile of anecdata "my kids are like X; I parent X way" let's please try to address the more overarching questions asked. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 6:51 AM on September 13, 2017 [36 favorites]

I'm Bulgarian. Kids whine in Bulgaria. Nobody likes it (young children are generally treated as royalty in my country, by both their families and any member of the public they may interact with).
posted by halogen at 7:13 AM on September 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am a children's librarian in New York City. We get all types.

Yes, many children whine like it's their job. It's because of immaturity (they want what they want, and haven't developed coping tools for not getting it right away) and sometimes because whining works in other parts of their lives. It's also because they don't have a better way to communicate that they really, really want or need something and don't think they have the power to fulfill it. They could also be communicating something they don't fully understand, like being tired or hangry or sad or worried-- it's difficult to tell whether it's manipulation or difficult emotion or both without seeing the situation myself. Sometimes transitioning from one activity to another generates whining because they don't have the coping skills to switch from one enjoyable thing to something else, and it's a matter of being reassured and gaining understanding that enjoyable experiences end but you can get back to them later.

I think they all do it a little at some point, and on bad days sometimes it's unavoidable, but it doesn't persist as a manipulation tactic if their parents or other adults in their lives don't reward it. The culture rewards it-- little girls and young women get rewarded for acting "younger" than they are because some people think it's cute, for example, and a lot of children's media includes whining characters.

I am fine with sticking with a firm-but-respectful "No" so I'm able to shut it down. Adults have to say no sometimes, for good reasons, yet a lot of adults don't understand that and are hesitant to say no. I think that might be because culturally, a firm "No" that remains a "No" is often considered rude, especially for women. Note also the culture of "customer service," where the person who is the loudest, meanest, whiniest, squeakiest wheel gets what they want at the expense of others-- children are watching that when it happens in their lives.

I think children deserve my high expectations, so I'm That Guy with "What's the magic word?" and "Kid's Name, I feel annoyed when you whine, please just ask me in a normal voice and we'll talk about it." They are merely people who have little experience of the world or of how courtesy to others works, and it's my job and all adults' job to help them out with practice finding what the boundary is.

The book "How to talk so kids will listen and how to listen so kids will talk" is really excellent if you want to understand child communication and behavior! It made a big difference to me in how I react to children's behavior. You might want to look into other books about the specific age and developmental issues of your children and see if there is insight about challenging communication there, too.
posted by blnkfrnk at 7:13 AM on September 13, 2017 [23 favorites]

When I was in Sweden and Denmark over the summer I heard tons of whiney kids everywhere, particularly on trains.
posted by modesty.blaise at 7:16 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's certainly a thing I hear children do here in the Netherlands. On trains, yes, and also in supermarkets and other stores. It's very often about seeing a thing and wanting to have that thing.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:20 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

This New Yorker article provides some insight on cross-cultural issues.
posted by Melismata at 7:20 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I always assumed that whining in an annoying nasal high pitched voice was basically the human being version of a fire alarm. High pitched "whiney" tones are hard(er) to ignore acoustically, like baby cries. Moderate, mid range, round tones are way WAY less effective at getting attention. If you think about it, almost all "attention is required right now!" noises are high pitched like that, both natural and man made. Screams of terror, crying babies, ambulances, every sort of alarm and siren ever, ringtones.... etc

So while I believe whiney BEHAVIOUR is a learned behaviour (in that kids have learned that it WORKS and thus continue to do it), I strongly suspect the specific tone and whiney high pitched nasal sound of it is biologically based to get the most attention possible, and thus likely not cultural.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:22 AM on September 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

Plenty of whiny kids in China, in my experience.

It's a communication strategy that is simple to execute and, often, effective. How adults respond to it determines how ingrained it gets, but I think there's also just some personality issues. Coping with big feelings and having emotional intelligence are developmental milestones that appear at wildly different points in the lives of small humans.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:23 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm Italian but live in the US. Kids whine in Italy and kids whine in the US. I have met whining kids in every country I have ever visited, in fact, so I'd hazard that it's cross-cultural though I can't speak from a pedagogical point of view.
posted by lydhre at 7:33 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

When we (Americans) lived in Germany, we came across plenty of children who tried to get what they wanted by whining.

I used to work in a Jewish preschool. The kids newly arrived from Israel whined just as much as their American counterparts.

It's fairly accepted dogma that kids stop whining when they figure out it doesn't work, or when the people in charge of them teach them a different method of expressing their wants/needs/frustrations. This was true for my kids, it was true for the German kids, and it was true for the Israeli kids.
posted by cooker girl at 7:33 AM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's a communication strategy that is simple to execute and, often, effective. How adults respond to it determines how ingrained it gets, but I think there's also just some personality issues. Coping with big feelings and having emotional intelligence are developmental milestones that appear at wildly different points in the lives of small humans.

This is an excellent answer. Plenty of other baby animals have high-pitched distress or feed-me calls. I think using whining as a tool to call attention (and even negative attention is attention) is probably universal, but its prevalence depends on the child, the family, and the culture. In a way, I think it's just an extension of a newborn's crying. A baby cries because it needs something, a toddler cries because it wants something, and a five-year-old whines because for they've learned over the last five years that loud, high-pitched noises get a response.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 7:37 AM on September 13, 2017 [8 favorites]

Irish children whine, as do British children. When I taught pre-school in the US, we got every kid who whined to knock that shit off by saying "I'm sorry, I can't understand you if you don't use your words" and then if that didn't work, "do you need to come back to me when you can use your words?"
posted by DarlingBri at 7:50 AM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

To follow up on lollymcccatburglar, my dog whines in a way similar to kids - when he wants something and I'm not giving it to him - so I'd guess it's a basic animal communication pattern.
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:53 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've heard Ivorian kids whine when they're not getting what they want.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:03 AM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mod note: One comment deleted - again folks, please stick to the cross-cultural question.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:09 AM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes, dogs whine in a way that's astonishingly similar to small humans. Even in households without said small humans, so it's not something they learned from the family.
posted by praemunire at 8:19 AM on September 13, 2017 [8 favorites]

I'm not sure if this fits your question, exactly, but while I very, very rarely see children whine here in Hong Kong in truly public places like the MTR or walking down the road, I have seen it in places where perhaps the public gaze is a bit less overt and people are involved in their own groups/families a bit more, like a family sitting together on an airplane, or in a restaurant.

I wonder if this is because the audience is large enough for the child's whine to have some effect, but not enough, perhaps, to draw social opprobrium. From an early age, children here learn ways to cope with the demands of a crowded, noisy city; often I can be sitting not two metres away from a parent and child talking and not hear a word they are saying. I have to imagine, then, that most whining happens at home.
posted by mdonley at 9:31 AM on September 13, 2017

IME American kids tend to be a lot whinier than Peruvian ones. I don't know if it's related but

- people in Peru tend to talk to children in the same tone they talk to adults
- babytalk isn't really a thing in Peru
- people find it funny rather than cute when kids sound too baby-like (as in they will laugh at them if they mispronounce stuff or if their intonation is too "abebado" - a pejorative word for baby-like behavior)

I know of one distantly related whiny Peruvian kid, and my extended family consider their whininess an issue. The general opinion of family and friends is that this kid is particularly bratty and their parents are spoiling them (spoiling is considered TERRIBLE parenting in Peru).

I just realized Peruvian people probably sound a little mean compared to American standards.
posted by Tarumba at 10:47 AM on September 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I spent a lot of this year working at daycares with kids from around the world and dramatically different life situations (rich kids from the US and Europe, refugee kids from Syria, etc., it's a long story) I did notice some whole groups of kids where whining was not a thing (this group of kids from a very rural place in South Africa like DID NOT whine, but they also came from a very loving but we'll disciplined school) and some groups of kids who had learned that whining would be rewarded (unfortunately, overly doting white volunteers in refugee camps have trained some kids into some really bad habits, and the psychological context
is very complicated). Seemed to me whining wasn't overall cultural-I had British, Spanish, Congolese, Argentinian kids that whined, and kids from allover the place that didn't whine at all-though it was kid by kid and usually more about what behavior gets them what they want from various adults in their life then anything else.
posted by Wanderwhale at 11:06 AM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding Tarumba, I spent a fair amount of time in rural northern Peru, and none of the many, many kids there whined. There wasn't a lot to whine about, I guess? They just ran around the jungle and didn't really have toys. They were all pretty happy though.
posted by ananci at 12:07 PM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Expectations seem to vary wildly across cultures and it does seem that American parents tend to have much more child-centric parenting styles, which would lend itself to parent-centric whining behavior?
Every society interprets its children in its own way: The Dutch, for example, liked to talk about long attention spans and “regularity,” or routine and rest. (In the Dutch mind, asking lots of questions is a negative attribute: It means the child is too dependent.) The Spanish talked about character and sociality, the Swedes about security and happiness. And the Americans talked a lot about intelligence. Intelligence is Americans’ answer. In various studies, American parents are always seen trying to make the most of every moment—to give their children a developmental boost.

During interviews with middle-class Boston parents in the 1980s, she and her colleagues kept hearing about the importance of “special time” or “quality time”: One-on-one time that stimulated the child and that revolved around his interests. Nearly every American parent mentioned it, she says. “It was this essential thing that all parents seemed to think they should do—and maybe they weren’t doing enough of it.”
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:12 PM on September 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've occasionally travelled in places where my first impression was that the kids didn't whine.

But after getting to know families better in one of those places — yeah, no, turns out the kids do whine there too.

They didn't do it around me until they got to know me because their culture holds that kids should be silent around strangers, especially important strangers. (And invariably I got seen as important because I'm white, they're not, and their country treats light-skinned people as more important.) Once I wasn't as much of An Important Stranger anymore, if they wanted something from their parents while I was around, the whining would sometimes come out.

This is just one observation about one place. But it might help explain some of the apparent variation.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:02 PM on September 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

i spent a month last year in Austria and was kind of shocked by how whiny the children were. i recall telling friends how cranky Austrian children seemed to be.
posted by hollisimo at 4:49 PM on September 13, 2017

IME American kids tend to be a lot whinier than Peruvian ones.

This has been my experience with Nicaraguan-raised or Nicaraguan-parent-raised kids as well - it may be something common to Latin America? But also I've noticed that Latin kids seem more emotionally expressive from an earlier age, and American parents seem to tolerate that kind of intense emotion less, which maybe ties into the theory above about how kids whine when they don't know any other way of expressing emotions.

My guess would be that American and other cultures where emotion is not supposed to be shown publicly deal with a lot more whining, as the kids know they can't melt down in public, but that in mostly atonal languages the slight edge of an intonation won't matter much or get them in trouble too much.
posted by corb at 8:37 AM on September 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone!
posted by OmieWise at 8:20 AM on September 17, 2017

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