Last Friday morning, I made my six-year-old son cry. Not just a quiet tear or two, but that gasping, rasping weeping that tells you they’re truly upset. How did I make him cry? I shouted at him. Why did I shout at him? Well, here’s the story.
School days. When the kids have to go to school, they know the routine. Get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, put on shoes, grab backpack, get in car. That’s the theory, anyway. Our oldest boy, 10, is well-trained, and does all of this without pushing, prodding, or prompting. Our youngest, 6, not so much.
He plays with his toys, he builds with his Legos. He lingers and loiters and lags behind. He dawdles and dallies, fiddlefarts around. So every day I remind him – repeatedly – of what he needs to be doing to get ready. I suggest that the food in front of him needs to go into his mouth. I note to him that simply having a toothbrush in your mouth while you build a Lego duck does not exactly constitute the actual brushing of teeth. I point out to him that he’s still in his pajamas, and that we need to leave in 3 minutes. And on, and on, and on, on a daily basis.
And so it went that morning.
“G, why are you still in your pajamas?”
“G, please put down the Legos and eat your breakfast.”
“G, you need to get dressed now.”
“G, it’s not time to play with your airplane, you need to get ready.”
“Have you brushed your teeth yet?”
It was this last matter that caused me to become unhinged, to unleash my fatherly fury on his poor unfortunate head. I come downstairs after brushing my teeth, and he’s seated at the dining room table, in his pajamas, with a toothbrush in his mouth like it’s a lollipop and his hands busy building a Lego gun.
Now, I don’t like shouting at my kids, and I certainly don’t enjoy making them cry. I try, sometimes desperately, not to raise my voice at them. I try to model good behavior, as we all know we should. But this pushed me beyond all the limits of my patience, composure, endurance, sanity. At times when I’m pissed at the kids my voice will start off mellow and slow, gradually gaining volume and momentum like a snowball set rolling on a steep slope, as the gravitational force of my own argumentation adds layer upon layer of furor. Not this time. This time I started out at full avalanche ferocity.
And so, the tears. He raced up the stairs to get dressed and finish brushing his teeth, but I could tell that he couldn’t manage the teeth because he was blubbering. And yes, I felt a twinge of guilt. But honestly, not much more than a twinge. Because yes, we shouldn’t shout at our children. But.
What if, occasionally, it’s the only thing that will work? What if you’ve exhausted every attempt at calm, reasoned explanation? What if you just can’t take it anymore, whatever that particular ‘it’ is?
Apparently, research done by Harvard Medical School (and much referenced by parenting websites) shows that shouting can cause as much damage to your child as physical abuse. Tweens and teens are particularly sensitive to being yelled at (no surprise there), and “the paper…concludes that, rather than minimizing problematic behavior in adolescents, the use of harsh verbal discipline may in fact aggravate it. The researchers found that adolescents who had experienced harsh verbal discipline suffered from increased levels of depressive symptoms, and were more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems such as vandalism or antisocial and aggressive behavior.”
Much hand wringing by parents, I imagine. (“Oh God, I screamed at little Aiden yesterday and now I’ve broken him.”) Because everyone, at some point, yells at their kids. But I think there’s a critical distinction to be made here – between shouting and verbal abuse. Raising your voice at your children is – at times – simply unavoidable. But calling them names or telling them that they’re “worthless” or “lazy” or “stupid” is not. Do not belittle your children. Do not humiliate them or be hurtful or hateful. But you can, I think, occasionally shout at them. Here’s why.
First of all, repressing your emotions doesn’t eliminate or diminish them, it simply bottles them up, like a volcano long overdue for an eruption. When the blast finally comes, it’s liable to be cataclysmic. It’s important that kids see their parents expressing normal human emotions, and while anger is not especially pleasant or attractive, it is perfectly natural.
Secondly, other people are going to yell at your children. It might be a boss, a friend, a partner, a coach. If they collapse every time someone raises their voice at them, life is going to be very difficult indeed. I’m not saying that you should somehow “toughen up” your children by going full on drill sergeant on them, but they need to know that not everyone in this world is going to speak to them as though they’d just swallowed a plush doll panda and washed it down with Valium-laced unicorn juice.
Thirdly, it might be a positive lesson in empathy. Alicia Clark, a psychologist and professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, says, “For children who are in grade school and older, expressing your emotions to them even while yelling can be positive. They learn empathy. And it’s an opportunity to teach children to separate what is being said from how it is being said.” They understand how much they’ve upset you, understand in what way they’ve upset you, and hopefully can see your side of the issue.
So after the little gremlin had gotten ready for school and we were in the car to school, I apologized. Which, I think, is important. We should never shy away from apologizing to our kids. We screw up. They screw up. If we want them to own up to their faults and missteps, we should do the same. I went on to outline why I’d gotten so upset, and asked him if in the future he could do everything in his power to get ready for school without undue distraction and dilly-dalliage. He (tearily) nodded.
Monday. This morning he was up, dressed, ate his breakfast and brushed his teeth diligently. He was happy, I was happy. Do I attribute this to last Friday’s events? Yes. Will it last? We’ll see.