A recent New York Times article asserted that parents who yell at their children look “out of control” and “weak” and that yelling is “the most widespread parental stupidity around today.” I discussed the article with a few close mama friends, and we lamented together that we lose our shit on the regular and are, at least in this regard, failures. We have to do better, we solemnly agreed.
But, like an itchy tag on my shirt collar, the longer I wore the article’s words, the more irritated I became. I got defensive. Partly because I yell at my kids, aged 12 and 8, but also because every single other parent I know yells at their kids, at least a little. Even the friends I consider to be model parents – who have saint-level patience and whose kids are kind, courageous, tenacious, well-adjusted, and honest – yell. We all yell, every damn one of us.
So why do these shame-y articles keep popping up to make us feel like shit?
Before we go any further, let me be very clear: I am in no way advocating for unrestrained screaming at children. We should never, ever say hateful things to our children or call them names or belittle them in any way. I’m also not suggesting yelling be utilized as a go-to disciplinary tool.
What I am saying is that, in the hubbub of ordinary life, yelling happens. Sometimes we yell about little things like getting teeth brushed so we can get to friggin’ school on time. (“ACTUALLY BRUSH THEM. DON’T JUST STAND THERE WITH YOUR TOOTH BRUSH HANGING OUT OF YOUR MOUTH.”)
Sometimes we yell about bigger things, like when a kid is about to hit their sibling. (“NO, CHILD, YOU WILL NOT.”)
Sometimes we yell to be heard over ordinary household chaos. (“IF SOMEONE DOES NOT LET THE DAMN BARKING DOG BACK IN…”)
Sometimes we yell because we just seriously cannot anymore with our children, not for one more moment. (“HOW IN THE NAME OF RUTH BADER GINSBURG IS THE TOILET CLOGGED AGAIN?”)
My main problem with this article and others like it is how much nuance is left out of the discussion. For example, this article uses a study that was published in 2013 to support the bulk of its argument. The study relied on a sampling of data from 976 two-parent families with children aged 13 to 14 and used the phrase “harsh verbal discipline.” Not “yelling.”
Isn’t there a difference between harsh verbal discipline and yelling? Bellowing at a kid to get their damn shoes on already before they miss the bus is not remotely the same as scream-shaming a child for accidentally spilling a cup of milk.
Nuance. It matters.
As an alternative to yelling, the article offers the following scenario: Say your kid has been leaving their shoes out, and you want to get them to put them away. In the morning, you tell them to do it when they get back from school. Then, when you get home, you model putting your own shoes away. If your kid also puts their shoes away, make a really big deal of praising them—Broadway style, jazz hands, big hugs, lots of grinning and eye-twinkling, etc.
I have a lot of problems with this idyllic scenario.
First of all, there is no recommendation for what to do if the child doesn’t put their shoes away. Unless a kid is a robot child and not an actual human child, they are not going to remember an instruction from the morning after 7 hours of being away at school. So, what, just ignore when they forget? Not that I’m suggesting we scream at our kids for not putting their shoes away (not the first 25 times, anyway), but I am questioning the practicality of this praise-only tactic.
Realistically, before a parent has even gotten one shoe off, most kids have already dumped their backpack on the floor, stripped their clothes off, and are streaking naked down the hallway smearing unidentifiable substances on the walls. We have to remind them to put their shoes away. Again. And again. And again. Times a billion. And a few of the times in that billion, we might yell, because we are human.
Also, this article and its examples seem directed at parents of younger children, whereas the study referenced by the article dealt specifically with adolescents 13 to 14 years of age. Do you parent your 13-year-old the same way you parented them when they were 6? If I did Broadway jazz hands for my 12-year-old, he would probably call his dad and be like, “Um, I’m scared, I think Mom’s body has been overtaken by aliens.”
I’m not performing a damn Broadway show tune for my tween for picking up his shoes. I tell him to pick them up because that’s what kind people do, and I don’t thank him, because picking up your shoes is a ridiculous thing to expect thanks for. Just pick up your damn shoes.
Now, do I yell at my kid over shoes left out? Unless I trip over them, no, I don’t. I yell at him when he’s dragging ass in the morning and holding up our carpool friends, being a defiant little shit, testing his boundaries, or acting like a sarcastic know-it-all — all rare moments, but they happen, because adolescence. We have long talks following these heated arguments, and my son always walks away knowing exactly what he did to contribute to the situation. If I lose my cool to an unfair degree, I apologize for that, but 95% of the time, if I yelled, it was a calculated measure to get through to him, and it worked.
Another important detail the 2013 study noted—which is glossed over in the NYT article—is that there is a reciprocal relationship between kids’ behavior and “harsh verbal punishment.” Meaning, yes, harsh verbal punishment at 13 does predict misbehavior and acting out at 14, BUT, also, wait for it… kids who misbehave more get yelled at more.
It’s a chicken-egg situation, not incontrovertible evidence that yelling will ruin your children. Correlation, not causation. They call this the “child effect”—the child’s behavior affects the parent’s behavior. I mean, obviously.
Again, so we’re perfectly clear, because I’m sure I’ll get hate mail for admitting I yell at my kids: I am not advocating for all screaming, all the time. Clearly, constant yelling at a child would be psychologically damaging. But articles like this with their kumbaya recommendations and absence of nuance do nothing but make perfectly good parents feel like shit. It’s not helpful.
So if you’re a parent who tries really hard, whose kids know they are loved and treasured, who is there for the scrapes and bruises and broken hearts and tough days, who has meaningful talks about what it means to be a good human, to be kind, to be your best self, but you also yell…
You are probably doing just fine.