Originally published in the GGMG Magazine – December/January 2014 issue
Shifting my screaming newborn from my shoulder down to my arms (in an attempt to calm the colicky little bunny as well as buy myself a few additional inches between her mouth and my eardrum), I surveyed the disaster unfolding in the single space that serves as playroom, living room, dining room, and kitchen in our small San Francisco apartment. An unfolded jumble of clean laundry sat on the couch, and dirty clothes littered the ground. Crusty dishes covered the counters. The hardwood floor beneath the kids’ chairs appeared carpeted thanks to food droppings, and the broom I’d gotten out five hours ago but not yet used leaned mockingly against the wall.
Despite my best shush and sway, her howling continued. Don’t shake the baby, I reminded myself.
My almost three-year-old son, one hand planted inside the back of his underwear, upended yet another bin of toys.
And still she wailed. Don’t shake the baby.
My five-year-old demanded immediate attention in the grating cadence she’d picked up after just two weeks of kindergarten, a sing-song of irreverence that somehow manages to combine the shrill whine of a baby with the sassiness of a teenager. The latest crisis? The two pant legs of her jeggings touched her shins at slightly different points.
The cries intensified. Don’t shake the baby.
Perhaps worst of all, a mirror reflected back a face marred by cumulative sleep loss (since my return from the hospital, my son had decided to “check on me” at least once a night, invariably in the middle of the newborn’s “long” stretch) and a huge shiner (sustained when he accidentally tossed his skull into my eye during one such check-in).
Red in the face and shaking, my newborn continued to shout. Don’t. Shake.The. Baby.
When my darling son picked up his toy hammer, walked over to his big sister, made eye contact with me, and slammed it down onto her head, I lost it. I finally obtained relief from the newborn’s screaming by drowning it out with screeching of my own. Railing hypocritically about using one’s words and problem-solving to resolve conflict, I sputtered and spat until all four of us shed tears.
It was not my best moment. But was it bad parenting?
Anti-anger parenting: from yelling diets to unfailing calm
These days the mommy blogosphere is awash with posts urging parents to stop raising their voices. Articles like “10 Things I Learned When I Stopped Yelling at My Kids” and “When Yelling Is Worse Than Spanking,” as well as books with even more emphatic titles like Yell Less, Love More and Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, exhort us to rein in our expressions of anger. These writers treat yelling as a weakness or failing, an injustice even, about which one ought to feel ashamed. Hands Free Mama writes, “I hated myself in those moments. What had become of me that I needed to scream at two precious little people who I loved more than life?” Rachel Zimmerman succinctly adds, “I do it, and then I feel dirty.”
Some parenting books go further than warning against shouting, telling us to maintain an even keel at all times, to be an unwaveringly tranquil ship on the turbulent seas of toddlerhood. Parenting with Love & Logic, for example, instructs: “Adults must set firm, loving limits using enforceable statements without showing anger . . . .” After all, these authors reason, adult emotion is what the little hellions seek; if you make it clear that you’ll deny them that satisfaction – affecting a sort of preternatural calm and responding to screaming children with a level tone – you stop tantrums midstream and prevent future ones. Like Princess Elsa in Frozen, many of us internalize these admonitions, struggling to “conceal, don’t feel, put on a show.”
It’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the anti-yelling, positive-emoting-only parenting push is a relatively new and limited movement. Historically, yelling was the least of children’s (let alone parents’) worries; after all, the era of government-sponsored child protective services didn’t even begin until 1962. Fifty years later, the scope of the anti-yelling ethos is much more circumscribed than one might think, as socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and geography influence where the line is drawn between discipline and maltreatment. Though the anti-yelling perspective currently reigns in upper-middle class San Francisco circles, plenty of American parents still see nothing wrong with shouting at their kids. To the contrary, the predominant belief in many communities is that verbal haranguing works best for producing independent, successful adults.
What is yelling anyway?
Yelling is defined as “say[ing something] very loudly especially because you are angry, surprised, or are trying to get someone’s attention.” It is not synonymous with verbal abuse, which generally involves name-calling and other substantively destructive language. Of course, communicating perfectly reasonable messaging at a higher than standard volume can rise to the level of verbal abuse if it’s imbued with enough venom. Frequency alone, however, does not convert yelling into child maltreatment under standards propagated by psychiatrists and government agencies.
Lisa Pion-Berlin, president and chief executive officer of Parents Anonymous, Inc., clarified for Better Homes and Gardens readers: “No, yelling all the time is not great . . . . But the context of what you’re saying is most important. If you’re saying to your kid, ‘You’re worthless,’ that’s different than yelling at your kid to get his clothes on.” In The Happiest Toddler on the Block, Harvey Karp agrees: “It’s your responsibility to do your utmost never to lash out with . . . hurtful words.” Parents must adopt a zero tolerance policy for emotionally destructive statements and vitriol. A mother flipping her lid – saying things that would otherwise pass muster but with elevated vehemence and volume – is another matter. What’s more, done in a certain manner, yelling doesn’t just meet the bare minimum of non-abusive; it can actually be good for your kids.
Some of parenting’s most educated and trusted voices agree that parental displays of rage can be quite constructive. In Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, preeminent psychologist John Gottman explains that by permitting your kids to perceive your anger, “you are demonstrating two things: (1) Strong feelings can be expressed and managed, and (2) Your child’s behavior really matters to you.” By moderating your tone, you can actually do children a disservice both by allowing them to assume that your emotional detachment comes from a lack of investment and by making your child’s strong emotions appear abnormal in contrast with your own easily mastered ones. Letting your kids see you struggle to control yourself, on the other hand, clearly demarcates unacceptable behavior, shows that you care, and teaches them to honor their own feelings (which is the first step in empathizing).
Karp acknowledges the benefit of this type of modeling and advocates more explicitly employing parental anger as a teaching moment: “Apologize as soon as you cool down. Then, later in the day, take a moment to calmly talk about how you wish you and she had behaved, and remind her that . . . your love is way stronger than anger.” Simply put, losing your cool doesn’t just present a chance to model emotion-management, it also allows you to demonstrate contrition, healthy communication, genuine apology, and self-improvement.
As Harvard professor Steven Schlozman summarized for Zimmerman, “We can’t and shouldn’t be Stepford parents. . . . Among the risks of feeling compelled as parents to be under such questionably possible emotional control is the fact that your children will never get to see how you respond to . . . [this] part of being human. . . .”
Tricks to limit yelling
In order for shouting to serve as an effective teaching moment, however, it must be fairly infrequent. Here are a few tips I rely on to help prevent yelling from becoming the status quo in my household:
- Focus on self-care: paying down your sleep debt is proven to enhance impulse control, and snacking can keep you from getting hangry (a portmanteau of “hungry” and “angry”).
- Try to maintain age-appropriate expectations.
- Relax the schedule: I often lash out at the kids because I’m racing the clock.
- Separate: I leave the room or send my kids to theirs, explaining, “I need a little space right now because if we stay together I will probably end up yelling.”
- Take a deep breath.
- Adopt code words: when I say “Run, Monkey Sauce, Run,” my little ones know I’m on the brink of blowing a gasket.
- Vent: find a judgment-free friend to whom you can text such truths as “if motherhood were a job I’d hand in my resignation today.”
- Whisper: sometimes you’ve got to fake it ’til you make it, and being barely audible forces everyone to pipe down and focus for a few moments.
- Repeat “no one can be perfect”: this mantra both helps me see my child’s offense as forgivable and keeps me from exploding simply due to the pressure not to explode.
- Find a way to blow off steam: techniques that help kids channel their frustration – like screaming into a pillow, biting a stuffed animal, and ripping paper – work for moms, too.
- Don’t hold a grudge: to keep their misbehavior from having a cumulative effect, I ask my kids to lay their upturned hands on top of mine; we then take turns putting offenses into our layered palms (e.g., “when Stuart banged holes into the new windowsill with the ice cream scoop” and “when Mommy grabbed the ice cream scoop away from Stuart”) and together shout “put it behind us!” as we fling the imaginary contents over our shoulders.
- Give everyone an out: I often avoid a power struggle by asking the offending child if they’d like a “do over” and then letting the initial transgression slide.
- Be silly: do something bonkers to shock and awe the kiddos and take the edge off your own ire (I like to announce, “it’s donkey time” and bray my best “hee-haw” while kicking a leg out behind me).
- Get out of the house: physical exertion, containment of the kids (in a stroller, car seat, or shopping cart), change of venue, fresh air, and the presence of other adults all work wonders.
At the end of the day, high-quality parenting allows freedom of choice within the confines of firm boundaries, makes sure children feel valued, and models healthy physical, emotional, and social behavior. If you limit the occurrence of yelling and engage your kids in a postmortem when it happens, you can serve each of these purposes and let go of the guilt we’re told to feel when our negative emotions inevitably find expression. You are only human, and your humanity can be used to bring you and your child closer rather than threaten your bond. Do your best to accept this truth: you can act in anger and still be mom of the year.
Case in point: after I lost it that day shortly after my third child’s birth, I asked the two big kids to sit down on the floor with me. I told them I got angry because my son broke one of our family’s rules by hurting his big sister on purpose. I explained that instead of saying, “I feel mad,” I yelled because I also felt tired, overwhelmed, and frustrated about all the things I wanted to do but couldn’t get done, like helping the kids with their problems right away and keeping the house tidy. I concluded, “Mommy’s a little fussy, and it’s harder to remember to use my inside voice and take deep breaths when I’m fussy.” Both kids nodded knowingly. My five-year-old excitedly piped up, “Mommy, that totally happens to me! But it’s okay, Mommy. No one can be perfect. We just have to try our best and then make amends when we mess up. You said sorry. Why don’t we put it behind us?” At the end of that day I didn’t hate myself, and I didn’t feel dirty. I stood tall, proud of my parenting – anger and all.