Question: Dr. Dobson, 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?
Answer: 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 moan-tone. 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.
From Dr. Dobson's book Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide.