October 29, 2009

In Defense of Shouting

The most popular article at the New York Times last week was one with a title I couldn’t resist: For Some Parents, Shouting is the New Spanking.

Almost from the first, the story drove me nuts. After delivering a backhanded sort of praise about how our generation praises our toddlers for blowing their noses, the writer says, “incongruously and with regularity, this is a generation that yells.”

First, could it be any more obvious that the reporter has never chased a toddler with a tissue? Kids this age look at Kleenex as the Devil’s own hanky. So, yeah, it is not all that incongruous to holler, “Buford! Come back here! We have to wipe your nose! No! Not on the couch!” Any kid who submits deserves a “good job.”

Second, I am quite sure this generation did not invent yelling. Perhaps we feel guiltier about it, thanks to stories like these that on the one hand make fun of our efforts to be careful and engaged with our kids, while on the other hand point out how grievously we are failing to achieve that.

In my book, though, the silliest quote comes from the author of a study on the damaging effects of yelling, one Murray A. Straus.

“It affects a child,” he says. (Duh. That is the idea.) “If someone yelled at you at work, you’d find that pretty jarring. We don’t apply that standard to children.”

Yes, it is true that we don’t give children the same perks and treatment a grownup would get at work. For one, they’d have huge temper tantrums if you served them coffee from a vending machine. Grownups shrug and drink it anyway.

More to the point, children are not employees and families are not corporations. Not even nonprofit. It would be nice if they were, though. We’d get much better benefits and vacation packages. (Anything is better than zero.)

But if I were running my family like a business, let’s see....the first thing I’d do, after lobbying my local, state and federal government for massive tax breaks and grants to support my work, is write a policy manual, to be supplemented by intermittent company memos, that explained how things in our little family enterprise would run. I’d also write job descriptions, so everyone knew what their responsibilities were and could refer to them in times of trouble. Non-yelling moments

And of course, we would have a human resources department to ensure these standards were fairly and consistently applied. I even know whom I’d appoint for the job: the neighbor’s cat, the one who poops on our garden paths and sits on the porch blinking smugly at the dog.

I’d tack memos by the fridge, like this, using inappropriate quotation marks for emphasis just to keep it real:

MEMO: To all employees
RE: Milk

It has come to the attention of management that some employees are unaware of how to tell that the milk carton is “empty.” Employees put empty milk cartons back in the refrigerator and then leave the door open until the lettuce droops and the meat is warm enough to experience a “zombie resurrection.”

We will be holding a “mandatory” milk-carton-operation training session Friday in the break room. Anyone who fails the milk carton test will be subject to immediate outsourcing to a foster company. Plenty of orphans in India would gladly come to work for us.

P.S. Don’t even think about filing a discrimination complaint. Human resources is NOT happy about the milk situation and will not listen sympathetically.

Look, no one likes yelling. But there is a huge difference between regular, bug-eyed berating of your kids and the occasional burst of anger. The first is probably a sign that you’re trying to do too much and you’ve lost focus on what’s most important. Cut yourself some slack, lower your expectations all around, and you’ll feel a lot better. Kids who are yelled at regularly really do suffer.

The second? Well, a little “Looky here, Buster” now and then is how we show kids that there are consequences to doing the wrong thing—breaking well established family rules, picking on a sibling, ignoring a parent. Anger isn’t fun, but it’s something everyone experiences from time to time.

Not everyone shows it by hollering, but it’s not such a terrible thing to do so. If we don’t occasionally show kids how bad behavior affects others, they might grow up and be the kind of people who swipe your lunch from the company fridge without giving it a second thought. Maybe one reason yelling is not routine at work is that parents did their jobs.

Ultimately, there are just two things I wish for: that all families make it through the day without getting pushed to the breaking point, and that the money spent studying obvious things—like the unpleasantness of yelling in the home—instead were funneled to programs that actually made it easier to make it as a family in today’s world.

Even the neighbor’s cat agrees that would really be something.

--Martha Brockenbrough



Lynne Marie Wanamaker

Great job! I meant to respond to this article too but I got distracted by the handwringing over the boy who wanted to wear a tutu. Isn't the Times a terrific source of irritation...er, inspiration?

jesse joshua watson

So good. So good.
I love it. Here's to all the parents. May they make it through the day...
And to the kiddos- may they continue to be resilient and wonderful and able to turn adversity into character strengths, specifically empathy and compassion. Cheers!


Well, I do think the Times and other journalists mean well. But I am tired of the tone that makes fun of us for the way we raise our children. A lot of good comes from the assumption that people are doing their best, especially when it comes to something so deeply personal. We can always knew things that let our best be better, and I wish that's how this stuff had been framed.


Tell it like it is Martha. Thank goodness your voice and words represents reality and there are convenient ways to counter the know-it-alls of parenthood.

Amyra Phillips

Amen Sister! Well Said!


I agree whole heartedly. Thanks for bringing some cheer on a hard mothering day! I am a mother of four, I would like for the person who wrote this article try to get through the day without raising their voice once with four children running around. I love my kids and I try my hardest to not yell often, but it does happen. I love your memo on milk!

Leann I Am

LOVE. THIS. (I'm sorry, did that seem like shouting?)

I saw an episode of Dr. Phil where his wife stood up and proclaimed with great pride that she has never, EVER raised her voice at either of her two sons.

I no longer watch that show because I now believe that they are either lying about everything or the have some freaky VOODOO thing going on that I don't want any part of anyway!

While I can't stand to hear someone always yelling at their children, who usually just tune them out anyway, I need to blow my top on occasion to get their attention. If you don't yell that often, I find it to be very effective.

And we don't just yell out of anger, we yell because they are about to dart into the street or touch something hot or drop something breakable...

It's a great lesson to teach your children that even their parents are HUMAN and they have drawn lines in the sand that you should not cross. We all have our breaking points and I'm tired of those parents who don't want to let their kids see them upset. They are not doing anyone any good letting them think that's how the world is.


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