A lack of reason?I'd like to tell you this is the only time I've ever yelled at my children, and you'd rightly suspect I was lying. But other times I've raised my voice, I've been the one to come down on myself afterward. For my son to point out my lack of reason -- and for him to do so, so reasonably -- caught my attention like nothing else.
Since that afternoon, I've become much more conscious of my volume, and I've become more curious about where I fit in among other parents. How much do other moms yell? What's okay, and what's not?
Apparently, my occasional yelling (I'll fess up to an outburst two or three times a month) puts me right in the mainstream. In a recent study, 88 percent of parents say they've shouted or screamed at their kids in the previous year (the figure shoots up to 98 percent of parents with 7-year-olds, which any mom of a 7-year-old can understand). Another study shows that 56 percent of mothers of 4-year-olds yell at their kids in anger at least once or twice a week.
Calls to 15 friends and acquaintances revealed that almost everyone yells at their kids at some point and in some way. There seems to be three degrees of yelling:
The most acceptable is warning or prevention yelling, to stop a child from running toward a busy street or touching the burner on a stove.
The most common is compliance yelling -- raised voices brought on by kids who don't do what you want, even when they've been asked several times, or somehow frustrate or defy their beleaguered parents.
The third degree is the beyond-the-pale yelling, when you not only cross the volume barrier but say things you wish you hadn't.
Monique Guilbeau, an Austin, Texas, mom of a 7- and a 4-year-old, thinks that yelling at your children in the first two degrees is almost unavoidable, since anger and frustration are such natural emotions. What's more, it does them some good: "Would you not cry in front of your kids? They're going to have to learn that anger and yelling are a normal part of life," she says.
"If yelling's done occasionally, if it's done constructively, it can teach a kid to be able to handle it," says Lori Beveridge of Austin, Texas, a mom of two, ages 8 and 1. "Not that it makes them think it's how people treat each other, but when a situation arises in the future -- a boss who yells or something -- they'll be prepared to deal with it."
I also believe that releasing your frustration through a good yelp every now and then lets kids know that you, like any human on the planet, have limits. There's also the sad fact that sometimes yelling just plain old works. Plenty of misbehaving children have been set back on the straight and narrow by a sudden, sharp increase in parental volume.
But too much yelling can build up a child's aural immunity. If she gets used to yelling, it won't have the power to grab her attention or put her on notice. "I keep thinking, What have I done to make it so that they won't respond to me until I yell at them ten times?" my sister Janyce Dudney, a mom of four in Kingsport, Tennessee, laments.
For yelling to have any positive effect whatsoever, it can't become routine. "If on a scale of one to ten everything is a seven to begin with, then what will you do when your kid runs out in front of a truck?" says Julie Ann Barnhill, author of She's Gonna Blow! Real Help for Moms Dealing With Anger.