Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Yelling is the new spanking*

I am generally very measured in my interactions with my children.  Well, in my disciplinary interactions.  When I'm greeting them or playing with them or just talking to them, I tend to be affectionate and effusive. But when I'm being serious, I don't like to yell because I want my children to behave not because they're afraid of me, but because they want to engage in good behaviors that please me and bring them positive responses.

Sometimes it's hard, though.

I was talking to a friend of mine a few weeks ago.  She has a daughter Zeke's age, who is also exhibiting  the same whine-y, test-the-limits-of-your-patience behaviors that Zeke is demonstrating these days.

"I can see where you could get to that line, and very easily cross it.  Where you get to the point of being so angry, so tired, so at the end of your rope, that it would be very easy to just snap and start hitting."

She doesn't, of course.  And neither do I.  But I know exactly what she means.

I woke up early this morning and got up to do the dishes, make myself some breakfast, and enjoy a cup of coffee while reading the news before the kids woke up.

I heard Zeke coming up the stairs, and he scampered over to me with a big smile on his face.  He's awesome first thing in the morning -- happy, affectionate, giving me hugs and kisses.  We chatted for a little while, then went downstairs when we heard Josie stirring.

She is also incredibly happy when she first wakes up (and all the time, really).  So the three of us had a little love fest, saying good morning, giving kisses, and getting ready for the day.

I got the children upstairs, and Zeke settled in to watch Dora.  Normally I'll let him watch TV in the morning because it keeps him anchored and focused while I get him dressed.  But this morning he kept running off to hide when I was trying to put clothes on him, whining that he didn't want to wear this shirt or those shorts or to have his diaper changed.

The whining, the whining, the constant whining.   "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeehhhh...."

I could feel my blood pressure start to rise.

"Zeke!  Stop!  You need to get dressed.  You need to put on shoes to go to school!  We have to go soon!"

"I don't waaaaaaaannnnaaaa goooooooo........I don't waaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnaaaaaaaa wear shoooooooooooooooessssss......"

I went to the kitchen at one point to replenish my coffee cup, and I heard, "look at me, Mama!"

I turned around and saw that he had taken my favorite bottle of nail polish out of the bathroom, gotten it open, painted his legs all over, and spilled it on the couch.


I fumed as I found some acetone, started cleaning off the couch, and then scrubbed off his legs.  "Why can't you just behave?  Why do you have to always make such a mess??"

He started to cry.  I scrubbed at his legs, probably a little more harshly than I needed to.  He sobbed.

Finally I got him cleaned up.  He climbed back on the couch to watch the rest of his show.  I went to the trash can to throw away the paper towels.

When I got back he was taking his shirt off.

I snapped.

"NO!"  I yelled as loud as I could.

"I don't waaaaannnnnnaaaa wear this shiiiiiiirt....."

I put my face about two inches from his and screamed at him, "I DON'T CARE!  I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU WANT!  PUT YOUR SHIRT BACK ON AND WE'RE LEAVING!"

Even as I was doing it, I knew that my motivation was to make him feel awful.  There was no positive, disciplinary purpose to my behavior -- I was simply furious and I wanted him to feel afraid of me, to feel the power of my anger, to understand that I was bigger and stronger and that I held all the cards.

Well, it worked.  He completely lost his mind and collapsed into tears.  Like, hysterical, unable to catch his breath, uncontrollable crying.

And I felt like dogshit.  Like an evil, mean, heartless bitch, unworthy of my children's love and affection.  Unworthy of my children, period.

I took a breath and stepped back.  I went and sat on a chair.  Zeke walked over to me, his shoulders heaving.  He hung his head and walked into my arms.

I pulled him into my lap and rocked him and kissed his face and wiped his tears.

"I'm so, so sorry, Zekey.  I shouldn't have yelled at you."

"Were you very angry, Mama?"

"I was angry, honey, but it's not nice to yell and I shouldn't have yelled at you.  I'm sorry."

We sat like that for a minute or two.  He calmed down and stopped crying.

"May I have a cup of milk, please, Mama?"

"Of course, sweetheart."

"With chocolate?"


"I love you, Mama."

"I love you, too, honey.  So, so much."

Later, after I dropped the kids off at school, my mother assured me that Zeke would not be scarred by this one incident.  And I know she's right.  But my heart still feels heavy.  I feel guilty and small.

This parenting thing is a bitch, sometimes.

*Hat tip to my friend Jen for introducing me to this expression.


  1. Seriously, parenting is not for the faint of heart. Your mother is right, of course. Zeke will be fine. I would have lost my stuff over the nail polish thing, too.

    I yelled at my kids when they were little. It does get better. I rarely raise my voice now. Which surprises me because they still do dumb things, thoughtless things.

  2. Thanks, Lisa. I know it's not the end of the world, but I just feel really guilty. But I'll get over it.

  3. Is yelling really so bad? Nobody is solely motivated by the rewards of doing good. You need the stick and the carrot, right? Or no? I haven't done this obviously. Your behavior seems kind of justified given the fact that you are, after all, human, and Zeke is not exactly completely unaware of his behavior. He's a smart kid after all. Or am I a heartless bastard?

  4. You're not a heartless bastard. And I do believe in the stick and the carrot. The stick being time-outs (which he hates and the threat of which are powerful deterrents) and the denial of privileges or preferred items or activities. And I'm not saying that it's out of bounds to ever raise your voice or speak sternly to show you mean business - it can be very effective, and I do it plenty. But there's yelling and there's yelling. I just don't see any benefit to either of us for me to scream in his face like a lunatic, which is pretty much what I did.