An article by Hillary Stout in the New York Times, “For Some Parents, Shouting is the New Spanking,” focuses on the damage to children done by parents’ shouting and, therefore, the need for parents to control their tempers. Although I agree that a steady diet of shouting and bullying isn’t a good way for well-meaning, devoted parents to act, the experts in the article miss the real source of the problem and, therefore, the real solution.
Those experts point out that the proper way to be a good parent is “never spank their children,” “friend our teenagers,” “spend hours teaching our elementary-school offspring how to understand their feelings,” “reminding, nagging, timeout, counting 1-2-3” and “have a good interaction based on reason.”
I disagree with their basic assumptions about good parenting and their solution that parents should control their tempers.
Of course, repeated sarcasm, criticism, beatings and abuse are bad parenting. I’m talking here to frustrated, well-meaning, devoted parents; not abusive bullies.
Good parenting sometimes involves spanking, has nothing to do with “friending,” is not focused on teaching children to merely understand their feelings and is not usually about good interactions based on reason. Reason is only a small part of being an effective parent, especially when the children are young.
Children are exquisitely adept at knowing your true limitations and which buttons to push. It’s a survival skill for them. They know exactly how many times you’ll yell before you act. They distinguish between yelling and threatening that won’t be followed up, and the “Mom” or “Dad” look and voice that means you will act. And they perform a precise calculus based on how much they’ll get the next time versus a punishment and your guilt this time. They know when they can get unreasonable and stubborn, and win. They also know that if you blow up and yell now, they’ll win later.
Winning those battles won’t increase their self-esteem. Pushing their parents around will make them insecure.
What leads to repeated shouting is frustration. Those parents have so limited their allowed responses that they’re no longer effective – the kids know that they don’t have to do what the parents want and nothing serious will happen. Those parents have taught their children to be stubborn and unreasonable in order to win. See the case study of Paula as she stops being bullied by her daughter Stacy in "How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks."
Those parents’ lack of creativity and effectiveness increases their frustration until they blow up and shout. Then those parents feel guilty, apologize, give the kids more power and set in motion the next cycle of not getting listened to leading to more frustration and further shouting.
The solution is for parents to take charge and be parents – speak and act straight. Decide – as age, stage and specific kid appropriate – what decisions you make and when the child simply must obey, and what decisions the kid gets to make and within what limits. In your areas, it’s nice if the child understands your needs and reasons, but you’ll never convince a two or sixteen year-old by reasoning that your way is best and they should be happy not getting what they want.
Sometimes you must be firm about your sense of urgency, which is not matched by theirs. Sometimes, your needs and wishes must be taken into account. You’re not their slave or servant all the time. They don’t get what they want every time. More important than helping them understand their feelings is teaching them how to deal effectively when they’re feeling demanding or angry or frustrated or needy.
And some kids seem to want to be punished sometimes. Really, they do. And they feel much better afterward. When you’ve gone through the sequence of reminding and timeout without effect, a spank is sometimes the best thing to do.
Your frustration and shouting is a message to you that you’re not being effective. You need to do more than merely learn the latest technique; you need to change the limits you place on yourself. That will open up other ways to making them do what you need when you’re under pressure.
Good parenting means that you can say, “Here’s the way it is. I need to move fast and I insist that you do the same.” Or “You don’t vote on this decision and we’ll talk about it later.” Of course, you will talk about it later. Or “I’m not taking you there today. I need to unwind right now over a latte. I love you. Now go read and leave me alone for a while.” Of course, most of the time we devoted parents will take them to places they want to go.
Don’t reason more than once with a five year-old who doesn’t want to brush her teeth, “You’re making a bad decision,” as those experts suggest. Simply say, “In our family, we brush our teeth, so you will.”
It’s not, as those experts say, that “Yelling parents reflect a complete inability to express themselves in any meaningful, thoughtful, useful or constructive way.” It’s that yelling parents aren’t allowing themselves to express the right thought, which is that “I, the parent, am drawing the line here and you will do what I want. I have good reasons. I hope you understand now and I know you’ll understand later. But even if you don’t understand, you will do what I want now.”
In addition to what I learned professionally, we have six, now-grown children who taught me that well-meaning parents yell when they’re irritable, anxious, pressured, overwhelmed and frustrated because they don’t know how else to make things work for them