is shouting the new spanking?

This morning in the NY Times, an article by Hilary Stout on the new parenting taboo: yelling at your kids. Sure, we all know better than to hit our kids. But how many of us mothers yell at them? Often? And might that not be nearly as bad?

I was interviewed for this article, after the reporter read my own confessions of having Lost It right here on this blog: after one particularly yell-y Martin Luther King Day weekend, and again last spring, when I attempted to give up yelling at my kids for Lent. I yelled less. I cannot say that I yelled none, and I hope the good Lord forgave me those few transgressions.

I am a yeller. Rare is the morning that I can get my three kids and me out the door by 8:00 a.m. without yelling at one of them, for having ignored me the first eighteen times I told him to put his shoes on. Or something like that. It feels great in the moment. Effective? Kind of. Especially after you’ve asked nicely eighteen times. But then I look at the clock, and think, oh great, I only made it until 7:21 today, and give myself another demerit on my internal mommy report card.

What I have found to be most useful (and acceptable) is to, when necessary, raise my voice WITHOUT anger. Like I’m talking to a cartoon granny with one of those old-fashioned ear horns. After saying “What do you want for breakfast, Seamus?” six or seven times without getting a reply, I might say very loudly, “SEAMUS, WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR BREAKFAST?” If I do it without blame or anger, just volume, he looks up and calmly says “Mighty Bites” and we can all move on. (That’s when things are hectic and I don’t have time to keep being ignored, or to spend the next fifteen minutes continuing to ask the same question in modulated tones.)

Anyway, it’s an interesting article, and raises some pertinent issues: what other disciplinary techniques do we have? Should we be troubled by our own yelling? Are there costs to our children for it?

There’s only one expert opinion that made me roll my eyes: according to Dr. Ronald P. Rohner, director of the Ronald and Nancy Rohner Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection at the University of Connecticut, yelling “is a risk factor for families.” A risk for what, Dr. Rohner does not say, but I am fairly certain that the MALE Dr. Rohner never stayed home with three children under five. And so I would like to conclude by quoting me, Amy Wilson, director of the Amy Wilson Center for the Study of Whiny Children and Overtaxed Mothering at the University of My Apartment:

Do the best you can. If you yell at your kids, tell them you’re sorry and give them a hug. Then, try to do the best you can.

(photo taken from NYT article: Jamie Grill, Getty Images)

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristy October 22, 2009 at 6:39 pm

I love your blog and this is definitely something I am guilty of! I am also a mother of 3 under 5 and I wish I could get through one whole day without yelling. I have tried everything but I come from a family of screamers so I feel like I am destined. Keep up the great writing! Hope to catch one of your shows, I will be in the first row agreeing with everything!!


Deepa October 22, 2009 at 8:24 pm

Wonderful blog! Regarding the business of yelling, I find that it really only is all about me venting frustration, when I yell. I find that cultivating awareness in general about everything I am doing, helps me stop reacting in ways I don't want to. It also helps to remember the kid isn't being difficult on purpose – there's always a reasonable explanation (even if it is "attention-seeking"). I swear by "How to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk" as my basic guide for parenting. Fundamentally, the book advocates empathy and a deep respect.


Amy October 23, 2009 at 12:09 am

you're so right Deepa. I have figured out that my 5 yr old who doesn't listen isn't being willful; he's literally not listening. Not tuned in. He's not trying to give me a hard time. So I take him gently by the shoulders, make eye contact, tell him what I would like him to do. And I yell a lot less.


Roxane B. Salonen October 23, 2009 at 6:01 am

Amy, count me in as an apologetic yeller. Am I proud of the fact that sometimes I cave to the pressure? No. Do I think it's effective? Not usually, though sometimes it seems necessary. Is it something I need to work on? Yes. Do I think I'm harming my children? Well…sure, in a perfect world, I would never yell, or do anything imperfectly. But you and I both know…life aint poifect. I love the way you end this, because we always can do better in the next moment. We can apologize to our kids when we mess up, and WE ALL WILL MESS UP (yes I was yelling there to make my point)! We can also point out to them, when they are of reasoning age, that they helped contribute to the yelling scenario, and what can we do together to help keep the volume at a more respectful level? I'm always working on this one, and I've gotten better, but I have to say, a LOT of it depends upon how we were raised. And some houses and personalities are simply louder than others. So much more I could say but think I'll keep it at that, since this is already a chapter long.


Patois October 23, 2009 at 1:46 pm

I am a repentant yeller. I believe I've given it up for Lent, too. (Much easier to give up chocolate, cigarettes and Diet Coke all at once, frankly. Oh, wait, that was when I was pregnant.)

Anyway, maybe you've got the trick: loud voice without emotion. I'll try that in about 30 minutes, when my Eldest needs to be awakened.


Mollie October 24, 2009 at 12:32 am

Though your contributions were of course delightful, I thought this was a typically flimsy "trend story." Michelle Cottle at The New Republic pretty much captured my reaction.


Anonymous October 24, 2009 at 11:26 am

not sure if this would help you but a tip I've found that works is to get the child's attention and have them look you in the face when you ask them a question. And then have them confirm that they heard you – yes you may still have to repeat their names 5 or 6 times before they finally break away from the tv/computer/book, BUT I've found it's less stressful to repeat their name then repeat my request over and over…..

Jessica from PA


Anonymous October 24, 2009 at 5:21 pm

I love your blog! I dunno…weren't we all raised with spanking and yelling, and we turned out okay? Not like I hit my children or anything, or yell at them for no good reason (for example, I WILL yell if there is a safety issue). I try to be patient with my two year-old but it can be difficult especially with a 3 week-old to take care of too!


Anonymous October 27, 2009 at 10:54 am

"We know better than to hit our kids"? That is whats wrong the generation of kids now. The guy that was a guest on CNN this morning said that spanking causee a lower IQ? Thats got to be the dumbest thing I have ever heard. I got my share of spankings when I was a child and today I thank my mom for it cause it makes a better person of a child when they grow up. Now I'm not talking about beating a child, totaly 2 different things. These days kids grow up thinking that everything they do wrong all they have to do to pay for it is stand in time out for 20 minutes. So of course they are going to do much more wrong. When you got spanked you stopped and thought about doing something wrong the next time. "Hey spanking really hurts I'm not doing that anymore". Wake up world, our kids are going to schools killing people cause you the parents are trying to be their best friends and not their parent.


Saran in NC October 28, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Amy, I found when my three were young that sometimes volume was the only way to get through! I've lost track of the number of times that I would yell at them, and then say in a normal tone of voice "now that I've got your attention …". Sometimes I think it's exactly that – there is SO much that is competing with us for our children's attention, you have to do whatever works!


Katherine November 3, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Hi Amy,
I came across your show (and blog) while reading this NYT article. I recognized you from Guys and Dolls at the Yale Dramat. (I worked on costume design and wardrobe.) How terrific to see that you've continued your acting career. Your show looks like a lot of fun. I'm a first-time mom to a 3.5-month-old (it is a bit of a shocker to have a kid at this age), so I am in the compulsively gathering information stage… I look forward to following your blog!


Leave a Comment