Save your yelling for your kids

Hopefully, you’re not the type of person who raises your voice to make a point or to attempt to get your way.  Man (not men per se) was programmed to do that of course, when a booming voice would scare away both foe and other predators. Now a lot of yelling might be tolerated if you’re the founder or a really hot startup, but not in most other domains, including being a dad or spouse. 

One area however, where it still lives on apparently, is in a lot of households where yelling is how dad makes an impression on impressionable kids.  It’s understandable on some level. Yelling lets off steam. It feels righteous in the moment and for that reason, it probably releases adrenalin that makes us feel powerful and energized in the moment. Like any stimulant though, the effects are short-lived. 

Yelling also seems to work, at least momentarily. Kids are smaller than you are and raising your voice does scare them. They may react to you seriously, as if thye are actually hearing everything you say, or perhaps cry, making you feel doubly sure that what you are saying is cutting through. 

At the root of a lot of screaming though is not what the kids did or did not do.  Most young kids aren’t evil. They don’t yet possess the guile to do they things we ascribe to them. When they say they are sick and can’t go to school, it’s rarely that they are telling a fib to get out of it. If they break a glass because they weren’t holding it “carefully,” it’s rarely out of willful disregard for the family’s possessions. For kids under ten, yelling to make them aware of incorrect behavior isn’t only unhelpful, it goes a long way to eating away at your relationship with them. 

Whenever I’ve caught myself getting carried away and starting to raise my voice to my kids, I’ve tried to imagine how they would remember the situation. We joke in our house about the events that our kids will later retell to a therapist. I’m sure we’ve scarred them in a dozen ways I don’t even know, but I do know that they won’t be regaling a future shrink with tales of how I yelled at them.

This sometimes has meant going back to them and apologizing for raising my voice; a conversation that goes a bit like this:

ME: Hey, I’m sorry I was yelling a bit ago. That wasn’t right. I understand that you weren’t trying to make me mad. I’m sorry that what happened made me momentarily lose my perspective. You don’t deserve to feel anything less than that I love you.

THEM:  That’s okay Dad. I love you.

It’s usually that easy. For the most part, they know I’m the dad and have a lot of control. They don’t abuse my love for them. They also know that I love them.

Importantly, they also know that when I raise my voice, it means something serious. Luckily, there have only been a few times when I have had to yell a warning: “Don’t touch the stove!” “Don’t go in the street!”  “Watch that wave!”  My objective is to save that voice for times when there is real physical danger, and not just because I’ve lost control in front of my kids. 

One part of this is for them, and one part of it is for me.  In  1974, Meyer Freidman wrote published Type A Behavior and Your Heart. He wrote specifically about the studies he did of Type A people who thrive on the excitement of stress and negative emotions.  While the term “Type A” has been used as a positive in our American culture, it is not always correlated with success. There are Type A hyper people who accomplish big things (sometimes at the expense of people around them), just as there are more easy-going Type B people who find gentler means for getting things done. 

Many Type A people are hooked on the adrenalin rush of feeling stressed and in a hurry, and only feel successful when they are somehow dominating situations at work and at home.  Aside from the obvious issues some of these people feel with co-workers and family, this way of living can have highly negative effects on their health.  There is a proven correlation between this kind of “bad stress” to negative effects to heart health, high blood pressure and increased risk of stroke. To the extent, you can understand what might drive you to yell, you may be doing your body some good as well your relationship with your kids and spouse.

Can kids experience too much love from their parents?

This is a debate constantly expressed by parents whether they know it or not. Parents, perhaps victims of our “no pain, no gain” culture are constantly worried that they are spoiling and coddling their kids. Yes, there are helicopter parents and there are parents who constantly cover for their kids and help them avoid consequences for their actions. This isn’t the same as “loving too much.” Parents who really indulge their kids to that extent are often driven by something outside of common parental love. 

What I’m talking about is things like kissing and hugging them, telling them you love them every day, packing notes in their lunches, and making them feel special every day.  

Many, many parents didn’t have this type of love growing up. They may have seen family love in situation comedies but didn’t enjoy it at home perhaps due to over-worked parents or a family that didn’t know how to express love. Some people even think that expressions of love are a symbol of weakness, never to be exposed.  Parents who came from these types of backgrounds are the ones who consciously or unconsciously hold back.  

They may not even realize that they are doing it but implicit in a lot of their actions is a belief that babies and kids can be “too soft.”   They might question why you are always hugging your kids. Or they might not be able to empathize with the fears of a child, insisting that he or she go into a dark basement and quit being a baby.  

Let’s be clear: raising kids is the not the same thing as training an army.  An army needs discipline. It needs unquestioning following of an authority. It needs troops hardened by the idea that there is nothing more than three meals, a place to sleep and the hope to live another day.

In parenting, that is not our objective. We are trying to raise little girls and boys to be sufficiently self-aware and self-confident to navigate in the world on their own without someone constantly urging them to toughen up because there is no more soup and no more heat today. Rather than training kids to be tough by withholding love and kindness, our role is to fill their buckets with as much love and empathy as we can.  

We all know people who did not get that as children. And of course, some of them go on to do amazing things. They overcome adversity and become examples of how a hard life formed them. Overcoming adversity is often a core of these stories and presented as the crucible that forced the spirit to overcome. 

The luckiest children are the ones who never had to wonder if their parents loved them. They felt unconditional love from their earliest memories. Their parents rarely raised their voices in anger toward them. They never felt that they disappointed their parents. They weren’t made to feel small because they weren’t as tough as grown-ups. 

As dads, we fail every day. It’s hard to be wise, sensitive, loving and awake in every interaction with our kids. We will say things we regret. We won’t have the energy or discipline to be the Martha Stewart of parenting with a dozen creative ways each day to say “I love you.”  We can however, dismiss with the idea that we can show too much love for our kids. For a dozen short years, you are the sun and the moon to your kids; they live only for your kisses and approval.  Around age 13, that changes and they seek out reinforcement elsewhere.  

If they know that you have always and will always love them, they can venture out more courageously, their barrels filled with love, ready to face a world that does not love without exceptions and caveats.