With every generation comes a new flavor of perfectionism, and today’s perfect parent is mindfully mellow. No matter how hot it gets, she never loses her cool. Her breath remains slow and steady. Her voice, soft as a new moon.
I’ve seen many of the books, articles, memes, apps, oils, and bath products, designed to turn all of us into this parent. I try to take deep breaths. I try to remember the good stuff. But the Calm Industrial Complex, mighty and ubiquitous as it is, has yet to change the way I speak to my kids.
I yell. I’m from a family of yellers, from a culture of yellers. I consider the occasional raised voice well within the range of healthy human expression.
Also, I like yelling. Not raging, or even screaming, which I unscientifically distinguish from yelling as being angrier and more sustained. What I’m talking about is a quick cranking up the volume in order to transmit a message that failed to reach the intended recipient in my regular speaking voice.
Yelling is an instinctual, and universal, way to express unrest. Categorically denying parents this mode of expressing our unrest strikes me as severe, and unfair. So, I keep yelling.
According to experts, this doesn’t make me a monster.
Yes, yelling can be used as a weapon, and a dangerous one at that. Research shows that verbal abuse can, in extreme situations, be as psychologically damaging as physical abuse. But yelling can also be used as a tool, one that lets parents release a little steam and, sometimes, gets kids to listen.
The difference between dangerous yelling, and normal-human-being-getting-upset yelling, is a matter of content and intention. The volume of one’s voice matters less than the message being sent.
How to yell
The first rule of yelling is to refrain from critique while doing it, said Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin and researcher on parental discipline.
“Get your shoes on!” is, in many circumstances, a perfectly fine thing to yell. “Don’t run in the street!,” is definitely OK if a kid appears bound for the road.
But calling a child “slow” while yelling about the shoes, or “dumb” while yelling about the street, is off-limits. Parents should also refrain from lecturing their children about any behavioral problems following the yell-inducing incident.
“Parents let the irritation show in our voice because we want the child to know we are frustrated with the hope that it will motivate them,” said Gershoff. This can be OK, she said, as long as parents “make it clear that we are frustrated with the behavior and not the child itself.”
The second rule of yelling is to consider one’s audience. Toddlers are unlikely to understand the substance of the yell, and will only absorb the frustration, or fury, Gershoff explained. Yelling at this age group isn’t likely to get them to do something quicker, or stop doing something foolish.
Also, pay attention to how a child responds to yelling. We are all born with different temperaments, with some of us being far more conflict-averse than others. To some children, a yell is just a parent being loud; to others, it’s a personal indictment and it stings.
“With my daughter, I only have to look at her sideways and she wanted to make it better. Whereas my son was very different, and I needed to make repetitive requests and sometimes raise my voice,” Gershoff said. “Two kids in the same family can be very different, and we have to adjust our parenting.”
Lastly, take into consideration the frequency with which you yell, Gershoff said. A kid who grows up in a yelling-prone family is less likely to take a single instance of yelling personally than a kid who grows up in a quieter family.
I consider my family’s penchant for yelling an immunity of sorts; give kids a steady dose of noise during their post-toddler years and then the yelling is less likely to seem menacing as they grow up. Further inoculation against the potentially negative effects of yelling comes from the fact that our kids get to yell, too.
The rules are the same: We don’t criticize each other through yelling. But, hypothetically speaking, if a parent won’t get off his or her phone, our first grader is free to raise his voice while issuing an otherwise innocuous “Come on!”
How to know the yelling has gone too far
Yelling tends to happen during a moment of heightened emotions, and heightened emotions tend to make our judgement blurry. We might have had a good reason to lose our cool, but once that cool is lost, it’s easy to get carried away.
Carla Naumburg, a clinical social worker and author of the recently published, “How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids,” said parents who are worried that their yelling may have veered toward rage should ask themselves a few questions: Was their behavior explicable to the whole family? Was there a clear cause-and-effect as to why they get so upset? If not, then the yelling may be traumatizing for the child.
“The only explanation the kid will have is that it is their fault, and they are a ‘bad’ kid. But the reality is, most kids don’t even get to that point, and all they know is that their parents, and the world, are unpredictable,” Naumburg said.
Naumburg said nearly all typical, reasonably good enough parents will have toxic explosions once in awhile. And as long as they are once-in-awhile, they can actually be useful. “I want my kids to learn that people don’t always behave perfectly and you can be in a healthy relationship in which people lose it sometimes.”
When this happens, parents can model apologizing and, in the spirit of Naumburg’s book title, owning one’s sh*t. This helps children practice forgiveness for others, and parents practice forgiveness for themselves. Naumburg said the difference between trying to be a better parent and a perfect parent is our willingness to have compassion for ourselves when we mess up.
I can always tell when my yelling is too loud, or has gone on too long, based on the behavior of my older son. In those moments, he goes from responsive to observational, trying to understand what, besides the socks on the ground, is really ticking mom off. His gaze locks in place, his breath shortens. Then, I stop. Ultimately, he’s the best guide to show me the difference between the kind of yelling that might do harm, and the kind that, in a loud family like ours, works.
Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.