Sunday, October 25, 2009

Yelling is the New Spanking

I come from a family of yellers. I call us “the hot-headed Hungarians.” We don’t yell at friends, co-workers, or anyone outside the immediate family. We reserve this activity for each other, usually when we’re angry, frustrated, annoyed, impatient, or offended. And we don’t do it in public. I suppose it’s a way of asserting ourselves, expressing ourselves, and unloading frustrations. I don’t know if it’s really a Hungarian thing or whether it’s more about our family dynamic. We’re actually fairly reasonable and well-mannered people, but once the trigger is pulled, there is no way to stop that bullet of anger.

For instance, my sister, my parents and I love playing the card game ‘bridge’ together. We talk, we discuss, we laugh, and we learn a lot about the game when we play. But things can also get a little heated and before you know it, the decibel has gone well above the pleasant conversation level.

“Why did you bid ‘two diamonds?’” my father asks.
“Because of my point count and my suit distribution,” I say.
“Well, that’s not right,” he says. “You should have bid ‘two no trump.’”
“That’s not what I learned at my lessons.” 
“Your lessons have it all backwards,” he says.
“No, I think you have it all backwards!” 

By now, the gloves are off and we’re having a flat-out argument about this particular convention. We are shouting (not quite screaming) and the others have to sit there and listen. Then my sister pipes in, “If you are going to waste all this time arguing then I’m going home.” Her voice is the loudest of all, because she practically has to scream to be heard. Then my mother chimes in and we are one happy hollering family.

At the end of it all, my son, who is working close-by at the computer, quietly asks, “Does bridge always bring out the worst in people?”

But by now we’re dealing out a new hand and talking about the H1N1 vaccine. “What do you mean?” we ask. “We’re having a very pleasant game.” The thing about my family is that we argue, we yell, we stomp our feet and then we move on.

In the New York Times article: For Some Parents, Shouting is the New Spanking (October 21, 2009) the question is raised as to whether yelling is damaging to children. “Psychologists and psychiatrists generally say yelling should be avoided. It’s at best ineffective (the more you do it the more the child tunes it out) and at worse damaging to a child’s sense of well-being and self-esteem,” the article states.

If that’s the case, then I am a damaged person because I was raised in a shouting household. No one likes to be yelled at, and most people don’t enjoy listening to raised voices, but sometimes it’s the best way to get attention or to work through an argument. Even Dr. Spock said that shouting is inevitable from time-to-time.

For instance, if you’ve asked little Johnny eight times to put the blocks back in the box and he doesn’t do it, is a raised voice unwarranted? You’ve asked nicely, you’ve spoken firmly, you’ve looked him in the eye to make sure he’s heard you, and still the blocks lay scattered on the floor; what else can you do? You can put the blocks away yourself (which is even worse than yelling, I believe), you can threaten the loss of a privilege, or you can get his attention with a raised voice.

Teenagers can be even harder to reach. They are notoriously good at zoning us out. I can ask my son five times with a pleasant tone to change his rabbit’s litter box, but only when I yell does he actually hear me. “You didn’t have to yell,” he says. “You could have just asked me nicely.”

The last time I went out for the evening, leaving the boys alone, I asked them to please do their homework, get into pyjamas, brush their teeth, and be in bed by 10:30. “Sure, Mom,” they said, with big smiles. “Have a nice time!” When I came home at 11:00 I found them in front of the TV and computer in their day clothes. The backpacks hadn’t even been cracked open. Does this not warrant a raised voice?

My husband comes from a very polite Canadian family. He never heard his parents argue. His mother never yelled and his father rarely blew his fuse. My husband hardly ever raises his voice and he still gets overwhelmed when exposed to one of my family’s confrontations. Does he elicit more obedience from our kids? Not really.

The New York Times article gives this advice: “Experts suggest figuring out ways to prevent situations that make you most prone to yell.”

Hmm...if anyone knows how to do this, please let me know.


  1. Like someone noted in a comment on another topic, you are always so elegant. It's hard to imagine you screaming! But sometimes our families bring out the worst in us. Great story about changing the rabbit's litter box. I think we've all been there with our kids!

  2. Hurray for normal families who freely vent, let off steam, air grievances and don't put on a sugary front...all done in a safe and accepting environment! If we have no safe haven in which to let down our guard, then we hold it all in, far less healthy in my opinion. I think we European families have a noisy but effective way of letting it out, and then moving on. My British family is much the same, at least it was when we all lived close enough to each other to actually yell!

  3. I just couldn't resist a cpomment to your most recent message about yelling. I have come across many yellers in my three careers. I am actually not one of them. I seldom raise my voice. When I was teaching nursery school I found the most effective way to get compliance from the children was to make eye contact with them, then lower my voice by several decibels and the calming, almost threatening effect was usually quite stunning.

    No right and wrong way.


  4. Food for thought. Your piece inspired me to look up the New York Times article. I will definitely try to think twice before I yell at the kids!

  5. Couldn't help but post a comment to this one, Carla! When I am frustrated or angry, I yell, and I think the victims of my vocal outbursts generally find it is justified - let's say they at least know why I am yelling. I often wish I could use the very low decibel and eye contact method. But just like there are hearty laughers and quiet gigglers, I think yelling might be in a personality trait - not sure it can be changed, just like you can't change how you maybe prevent situations that make you yell by trying to see the humor in them and instead laugh. Hmmmmm - Good luck with that!

  6. If yelling is the new spanking then what do they call what sarcasm is. It seems to be the the most popular form of communication with many people these days. I would take yelling any day of the week over sarcasm.

  7. I grew up with a father who was always yelling and I hated it. I ended up marrying a man who never raises his voice. My father could have used some restraint and my husband could stand to let out some emotion once and a while, so I think the happy medium would be somewhere in between as neither extreme seems healthy to me. I always found a slightly raised tone got my daughter's attention without bringing down the roof like my dad used to. She hasn't demonstrated any ill effects, but she still knows when I mean business!

  8. Thank you, everyone, for your very interesting comments and insights! I love to read your perspectives as they bring another dimension to the subject matter. Please keep them coming!