In my day it was the wooden spoon. Mums (usually) at their wits end brandishing the least threatening of the kitchen implements to bridle a wayward child. A gentle (or not) clip on the back of the knees was standard – expected even – for answering back, not doing what you’re told, or general mucking about. It was the only way. As a wilful kid, you understood you got what you deserved.
As parents ourselves now, we wouldn’t dream of doing that. Or if we do we’re not telling.
Not that, in the blink of a generation, we grownups have become doyennes of calm, mastering our emotions with obedient, complicit children as a result. It’s just that we yell instead. The shout has replaced the slap.
Yelling at our kids is sanctioned, a requisite model of discipline to get them to toe the line. We quite happily yell in public, empathising with other shouting mums on the implicit understanding that they have no choice in the matter. They’ve been pushed to the brink like we all have and the only recourse left is to raise the decibels. “I hear you”, we say, and we’re not just referring to the volume. We laugh about the time we yelled so loud birds took flight. Or the time we lost our voice from the strain on the vocal chords.
I yell too, more than I would like to (I never like to). When it’s four minutes to the school bell and the shirt I’ve just ironed has been fashioned into a turban on my six year old’s head. When I find the two of them leaping on the bed trampoline-like after asking them not to approximately 36 times. The time they broke my lamp (from falling off said bed-trampoline). I always start with good intentions, a build up from polite requests, reasoning, bargaining, begging, consequences and even a warning of what’s to come: “I’m about to lose my temper”. Then lose my temper I might. A non-premeditated outburst from deep within, a tantrum of my very own, always swiftly followed by apologies (from me, not them), and no-one’s learnt a thing.
Because one thing I do know about yelling: it’s not them, it’s me. It’s a shameful and blatant loss of self control, a laying bare of my own shortcomings, that only teaches them to do the same. By losing the plot when things don’t go our way, our children – sponges that they are – think this is how it’s done. A disturbing habit picked up for life.
“There’s no upside to yelling at them”, says my friend, Roisin, mother of seven who somehow manages to take three deep breaths when her kids press her buttons and has barely even raised her voice. “It makes a kid feel bad about themselves and it makes you feel crap too. I just tell them to go to their room for a minute while I calm down”.
“Sometimes I think I need to stop yelling and start crying. It might have more impact”, says another friend. “It’s either that or scream into a pillow”.
“The reality is we all lose it every now and then. We’d be lying if we said we didn’t”, says Child Psychologist, Dr. Fiona Martin, who believes when we do, it’s a “red flag” for overstressed parents. “Yelling isn’t constructive. It doesn’t work. It creates tension and it changes the emotional climate of the home. It can crush their self esteem. When you’re yelling, who’s got the problem?”
Parents claim they can’t help it. In the heat of a heated moment, the compulsion to yell is overwhelming. But, in ‘Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting’, (a book I keep by my bed), Dr. Laura Markham says we can break the yelling habit: breathe, step away, splash cold water on your face, hum if you have to, whatever it takes to shift out of the “reptile brain” of fight or flight. “Take a deep breath and choose love”, she writes. “No matter how bad your child’s behaviour, it’s a cry for help”.
When I shout, thick with remorse, I tell my boys we’re going to wind back the clock and start again. They tell me to go and meditate. They’re right. That usually does the trick.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and DailyLife.com.au on 3rd April 2016