LISTEN UP! Yelling Does Not Make You A Bad Parent

by Rita Templeton

As a kid, my parents never yelled at me. Ever.

I remember going to friends’ houses and hearing their parents’ loud voices, raised angrily over a messy room or a disregarded curfew, and feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Yelling, I thought, equaled an abusive and unhappy household. I marveled at how my friends seemed to be unaffected by the shouts because something like that would have cut me to my core since I wasn’t used to it. I could never get used to living in a household where that was the norm.

Fast-forward to my own adulthood, and here I am, living in a household where that’s the norm.

I’m not sure how it happened given my quiet upbringing, but I grew up to be a yeller. I’m always hollering, but that’s mainly because I have four boys of my own, plus several neighborhood kids at any given moment, and much of the time I’ve got to raise my voice just to be heard.

It’s loud as hell in here, so “louder” is kind of my default setting these days. Which means that when I get frustrated, my first inclination is to — you guessed it — turn up the volume even more, so they can hear just how frustrated I am.

Thanks to the internet and its many ways of making us feel like inadequate parents, we’ve read story after story of moms who swore off yelling for a year and their lives were suddenly 100% peachy and their children went from failing students to early admission to Harvard. This is only a slight exaggeration.

Feeling the gut-wrenching burden of mom guilt, I tried to stop shouting at my kids, to deliver each request in a calm and hushed tone with lots of eye contact. You can guess how well that worked in my often-chaotic household. The truth is, nothing I’ve tried stops them in their tracks and makes them pay attention more than a voice that suddenly rises sharply above the din.

Yelling, in and of itself, isn’t bad; it’s just another way to make yourself clear, to convey your irritation, no different than punctuating your sentences with hand gestures. It’s what you yell that’s the problem. Yelling the wrong thing is most definitely emotional abuse, the kind that causes lasting damage. There’s a distinct and important difference between yelling “You’re such a freaking idiot!” and yelling “If I have to wipe pee off this toilet seat one more time…”

Kids could make even the saintliest of people lose patience, and sometimes people yell. Yes, it’s often rooted in anger, so if you think you’re feeling too hotheaded to refrain from saying something mean, it’s better not to say anything at all. But it’s also effective when used properly. My kids know that when I get loud, I’ve had enough, and I mean business — and it works.

My parents never yelled at me, not once in my entire recollection, yet I grew up absolutely petrified of yelling. I was thin-skinned and fearful of judgment, with a tendency to take everything personally — a trait I’ve fought to shake off over the years, a trait that you’d think would be more likely for a kid who got yelled at than a kid who didn’t

My fear of being yelled at ultimately kept me from joining the military, something I truly wanted to do, because I didn’t think I’d be able to take the pressure of being bellowed at during boot camp. I was once yelled at as an adult by a man who thought I was going too fast in a residential area (in truth, I was learning to drive a stick shift, and it accidentally got out from under me); as a result, I had a full-blown panic attack and never tried to drive that car again.

I’m not necessarily saying my folks should have been louder or more forceful with me, but I honestly can’t see that I benefited much from the lack of yelling either. If anything, I think it made me ill-prepared for handling it later in life, and thickening my own skin was a struggle.

My parents never yelled at each other, either, but their marriage still dissolved into an acrimonious divorce. So not raising your voice isn’t a guarantee of peace.

My kids understand the nature of yelling. Around here, it’s an expression of dismay, not unbridled fury; it’s temporary and doesn’t mean that the yeller hates them forever or that they’ve done something irreparably wrong; and it’s never directed at them in an abusive manner (if I’m feeling that ragey, I know to shut myself in the closet with a box of cookies until it subsides).

I don’t know whether I’m actually doing them a favor by not holding back, but I do know that raising my voice is a valuable tool in my parenting arsenal, and I’ll pull it out whenever I feel it will be most effective.

I’ll just make sure my windows are closed first. You’re welcome, neighbors.