Here's a typical exchange with my 5-year-old:
"Henry, please put on your shoes." (Spoken mildly)
Five minutes later. "Henry? Please put on your shoes." (Emphatically)
Two minutes later, he's still wandering the living room. "Henry! Shoes!" (Warningly)
And finally: "HENRY! PUT ON YOUR SHOES THIS MINUTE!" (Desperately, angrily, loudly)
For the first time in this 15-minute mini-drama, Henry -- not only shoeless but still sockless -- appears to hear me. He puts his hands over his ears and begins to cry: "You don't have to yell! Why can't you use polite words?"
Maybe because sound waves don't always penetrate my children's ears at lower decibels. (Their hearing has been checked and everything is fully functional, though, as my pediatrician points out, hearing and listening are not the same thing.) Interestingly, some words come through louder and clearer than others. Such words as "dessert" and "toy" trigger full and instantaneous attention. It's the requests and commands that
I may as well be mouthing. Maybe if I tried "Please put on your -- ice cream -- shoes," I'd elicit a more favorable response.
By yelling, I'm in no way referring to the type of chronic hectoring that causes little shoulders to droop. Nor would I ever call kids names or hurl loud insults -- all transgressions far worse, in my book, than spanking. I simply refer to those situationally induced lung exercises to which otherwise rational and charming parents are reduced on occasion, due to annoyance, impatience, exasperation, fear, or being really, really ticked off. Even so. Whatever rationalization can be made for a good yell, when it comes out of your mouth, it just sounds mean and horrible.
And often, that's how I feel afterward. As echoes of "GET! OVER! HERE! NOW!" reverberate in my skull, I struggle to remember the object of my ire as a fresh, pink newborn cradled in my arms. Back then, when my ideas about motherhood were as lofty as the balloons on the congratulatory baskets that appeared at my door, I wondered how a mom could possibly raise her voice to the tender fruit of her loins.
That was before I ever saw a remarkable likeness of cooked spaghetti drawn on our living room wall -- with permanent marker. That was before I knew what it was like to be utterly ignored while attempting to lead small children (over and over) through baths, pj's, toothbrushing, and more requests for water and back rubs than there are curtain calls in a hit Broadway show. But no matter how loudly I shriek by day, at night I love to sit quietly and watch them sleep, infantlike again in their dreams. Then I feel ashamed.
Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of several books on pregnancy and child rearing.
Losing ItI know that yelling doesn't make any Top 10 lists of effective child-management tactics. Instead of screaming, for the tenth time in ten minutes, "STOP BOUNCING ON THE SOFA!" I know that I should put on some dancing tunes to relieve my limber preschooler of her boredom. Instead of bellowing "PICK UP THOSE BLOCKS!" for the hundredth time, it would be more effective to turn the chore into a fun game that we could do together. I know there are better ways.
But I've yet to meet the parent who doesn't lose it once in a while. Every mother I know yells sometimes -- but rarely raises her voice in public. Certainly not while trying to be on model-mom behavior under the watchful eyes of ever-patient teachers and well-behaved fellow parents. Certainly not within earshot of Grandma or the babysitter. Not in the hushed aisles of the grocery store. Never on initial playdates.
I, for one, find comfort in the knowledge that I'm not alone. I'll never forget asking an unfailingly calm and cheerful mother -- the attentive sort who can simultaneously run two conversations (one with an adult and another with a clingy, insistent child) while making neither party feel slighted or interrupted -- whether she ever lost her temper. She laughed. Just that morning, en route to preschool, she'd pulled over to break up a backseat battle between her two kids. "I yelled so loudly,
I was shaking," she admitted. "But they finally realized I was serious." She paused before adding smugly, "And then it was a much more pleasant trip." Seeing this unexpected side of her shocked me. And it left me liking her even better.
Did such an outburst make her a shrew? Would it scar her little squabblers for life? No and no. What it did accomplish was letting her release some pent-up anger. Then, after the squall passed, the sun could come out again, a forecast vastly preferable to continued gathering storm clouds that would have left a pall over the rest of their day.
Most parents know, in their heart of hearts, that a bark is not the world's most effective communication tool. Neither is it our primary one. I always start out talking nicely. I try to raise my voice only as a last resort. But like the primal screams I let out when each of my four children was born, the occasional well-placed holler helps me get through the moment so I can move on.
So what if yelling "STOP THAT!" stops nothing. Never mind that a snappish "NO!" rarely does the trick. Sometimes, letting loose just makes a mom feel good -- and shouldn't that count for something?