October 27, 2006

Yelling at Kids

Yelling at kids teaches!

Yelling at kids teaches kids that people do not mean what they say until they yell.

Yelling at kids teaches them to yell back.

Yelling at kids teaches kids to yell at others.

Yelling at kids teaches kids to ignore adults who speak to them in respectful and dignified tones.

Yelling at kids teaches kids that they are not worthy of being spoken to in civil tones.

Yelling at kids teaches kids that a reasonable way to relieve stress is to yell at others.

The point here is that yelling at kids teaches them a lot... but it rarely, if ever, teaches them anything of much value. I do not think that yelling indelibly scars kids nor does it do them irreparable psychological damage; but it certainly does not help them to learn productive ways of interacting with the world. I guess you could say that I am opposed to yelling at kids for the same reason that I am opposed to punishment; it does not work in any way of the ways it is intended.

I was sent to my room thousands of times for teasing my sisters. I was told to go in my room and think about how to treat my sisters. I did. I thought about how I was going to get them out behind the barn just as soon as I got out of my room and hold their heads under water in the horse trough for tattling on me. Sending me to my room did not teach me how to get along with my sisters. The desired or intended result was a far cry from the real outcome. My parents intention in sending me to my room was to teach me how to treat my sisters in a much nicer manner but what they got was far different from what they intended. Yelling at kids brings about a very similar kind of outcome.

A child who is yelled at on a regular basis simply learns that he doesn’t have to listen to instructions delivered in a quiet and dignified voice.

Teaching does not require intent!

We adults are teaching children every minute we are in their presence! Even though we may have no intention to teach nor any idea about what we want to teach… we are teaching just the same. Kids learn our language at their own pace and other than a little work on some specific vocabulary they learn it quite completely with little intent on our part. Kids rapidly learn the tense of verbs and they often learn it from parents who cannot intellectually define the tenses of the verbs they taught! The point is that kids learn many things from us without us intending to teach them.

Kids in France speak French. Kids in Japan speak Japanese. However, take the French girl and raise her in the Japanese home and she would speak Japanese! Raise the Japanese kid in the French home and he will speak French. Raise them in my home and both will speak English. Language acquisition may be genetic. All normal human beings speak; but the specific language they speak is learned! Kids learn the language that they are exposed to.
Children learn Non-Verbal Language Just as Easily as They Learn Words
Not only do kids learn the spoken language they are exposed to, but they also learn to interpret and use all of the non-verbal ways of communication. They learn what a civil tone of voice means. They learn what words like “please” and “thank you” mean. Children raised in the presence of adults who rarely speak in a conversational tone and who never enforce anything said in that conversational tone learn that adults rarely mean what they say in a conversational tone. Kids who hear yelling all the time begin to feel that it is normal conversation. They will react to this language just as naturally as kids in France react to French. If yelled commands are the norm, then kids react to them in a like manner. Kids can, and do learn that yelled commands too can be ignored. I witness that dynamic in many homes.

In working with a family for the 20/20 program I found a couple with a son who didn’t seem to obey many commands or requests for action from his parents. I watched a week of tape from their home and discovered an amazing thing. Every time his mother or father said his middle name in a loud and yelling tone of voice, his head turned and he listened to what they said and he usually did it! “Joe!” did not get his attention or action. “Joseph!” was equally ineffective. “Young man!” expressed in a conversational tone of voice did little to interrupt his play.

But when his parents said “Joseph Alex!” in a loud, yelling kind of voice, he quite often listened and usually complied! Why? They had taught him that when they said his middle name in a shouted voice, his time of ignoring was done and he knew that they would enforce the following command, so he complied.

Joseph Alex had learned exactly what his mom and dad had taught him, "Mom and Dad only mean what they say to me when they say my middle name!" Even though they did not intend to teach that to him, that is precisely what he learned from them. It was pretty simple to restructure effective communication in that family. All that the parents had to do was duplicate the actions they had previously used with their son when they shouted his middle name, only in the restructured situation they had to do it with their first civil and polite request for “Joseph Alex” to perform some desired action. Say it civilly and politely… but enforce it. It did not take long before Joseph was willingly obeying dignified and respectful commands. His parents had taught him a new language! The first step lay in restructuring their own plan of action and in taking control of what they were teaching their son. And man did those parents feel much more calm and less stressed. The key is that Joseph, too, seemed far less stressed and he was much more likely to do as he was asked.

This brings us to another important reason why yelling at kids is highly ineffective. Yelling destroys the dignity of both the parent and the child. Kids can learn to respond to calm demeanor just as easily as they can learn to respond to yelling. When parents yell at kids, the stress level of everyone in the home goes up, but “yelling-related stress” increases for no one more than the parent. I learned this simple concept while teaching.

One day, while I was teaching at Walla Walla High School, I had had a particularly tough day of being angry and loud with students and was feeling stressed out by my ineffective interaction with my students. (The kids were probably OK with it… they had learned the “language” of that guy who yells during third period!) My stress level was near the breaking point. In my frustration, I sought out the council of Lola Whitner, a master teacher who taught in the room next to mine. I said to her, “Lola, how do you do it. You are sixty-five years old, you are a perfect lady, you are barely five feet tall, you speak to kids in a respectful conversational, tone and yet the same students that I feel compelled to yell at are so quiet and respectful with you, and you never raise your voice. Help me. I must learn to do what you do!”

Very quietly she replied, “You have quite a temper, Mac. I can hear you through the walls. (She chuckled as she said that.) However, I have one question for you; can you ever control your temper? Can you ever speak quietly and respectfully to your students?”

“Well, yes, sometimes I can control my temper,” I replied. “But often I just blow up.”

“Well, Mac,” she replied very calmly, “If you can control your temper some of the time then you just demonstrated to yourself that you CAN control it. Now that we have established that you are capable of controlling your temper, may I point out to you that if you do not control your temper it is a choice! Why don’t you choose to control it all of the time?”

Her simple question changed my life forever! I finally realized that my actions were my choice! I never again yelled in anger at a class! I chose to be different and I was! The biggest thing that changed was my feeling of control and power over my life. I, once and for all, preserved my dignity and the dignity of my students by choosing not to yell; by choosing to speak in a civil, dignified, respectful, and polite manner I created Dignity for myself and flr my student!. They rapidly learned that even though I was speaking calmly and in a polite and dignified tone, I still meant what I was saying. My classroom became a respectful, dignified, and relaxed place; just like Lola’s.
There Is No "Quick Fix"

I was recently asked what would be my short-term suggestion as a solution for parents who found themselves yelling at their kids, and I have none.

I do not put much stock in short-term solutions to life-long types of problems. Lola did not propose a short-term solution to my problem and and a short-term solution would have been of little value to me. Therefore, I would not suggest one for anyone else. The solution to the problem of yelling at kids lies in changing the manner of speaking to children FOREVER. The long-term, life-changing solution does not involve going into a room and shouting, or hitting a punching bag. The solution does not lie in counting to ten or leaving the room. The solution lies in deciding to be different, today, tomorrow, and forever. The solution lies in letting the calm of self-control waft over you. The solution to yelling at your children lies in committing to a plan of action for how you will act before the yell-triggering situation arises; and then following your plan. This plan will bring dignity and peace to YOUR family.
Anticipate Situations that Used to Trigger Yelling

Now, to augment this newfound self-control derived by deciding to be calm, dignified, and respectful, and committing to a plan of speaking in a conversational voice, it is necessary to anticipate the situations or circumstances where you have been tempted to yell in the past. Those situations are almost always quite predictable. Identify those times and then develop a very specific plan of action for those situations. Actually practice the words that you will say and the manner in which you will say them.

Identify Situations!

For example, let’s say that one time when you have lost control and yelled in the past was when you would ask your kids to help with setting the table for dinner. Previously they drove you crazy by ignoring your requests for help. So you would resort to yelling and the result was little if any change in their behavior. Build a plan for this specific situation.

Create Your Plan!

Rather than standing in the kitchen and yelling, as you have previously done, with little results, lay out your plan to go to where your kids are and say respectfully, “I need your help. Would you please get up now and come in and set the table? Look at me kids. I am smiling and I am speaking in a polite tone of voice. I even said ‘please’, but I really mean it.” If they do not immediately start to move to set the table, move squarely in front of them and ask politely in a calm tone, “Excuse me, but what did I just ask you to do?” (You may have to point out to them that you just asked a question that you wish to have answered because they are now in their Ignore-Mom-or-Dad-mode.) Stay right in front of them and wait for their answer. As soon as they can repeat what you have said, say, “Ok, so you know what you have been asked to do and I am going to wait right here until you start, so please get started right now.” All of this is said in a respectful and pleasant tone of voice at a conversational volume.

Be patient. It may even take weeks for this new dignified approach to begin to take hold because the kids have literally had years of ignoring your conversational statements and years of hearing you yell at them. It will take time to “learn the new language” you are speaking!

All too often I find parents looking for gimmicks or tricks to use with their kids, when what really works is to make simple and fundamental changes in their own ways of thinking and acting. Usually the people who yell at their kids are the same ones who will become the most upset if their kids were ever to yell back. It is pretty easy to get caught in a trap of holding higher standards for kids’ behavior than we hold for our own behavior.

Some Key Questions
Now, before we leave this topic of yelling at kids, I would like to throw out one last question for the consideration of anyone who is choosing to yell at a child.

“On what basis have you decided that you are justified in yelling at your kids?”

To follow up that question here are a few more to answer.

“Is it justifiable to yell at kids because you are older?”

“Do you deem it justifiable to yell at your kids because you are bigger?

“Do you view it to be reasonable to yell at your kids because you are the parent and have parental authority?”

“Do you feel justified in yelling at your children because you are older and have more life experience?”

It would seem to me that all of these would constitute reasons for you to NOT yell at your kids.
“Is there ever any viable justification for yelling at a child?”

Yes, I will grant you that it might be justifiable to yell at a kid if he was running toward the street and a truck was coming, or if she was reaching for a boiling pan of water on the stove; but short of an emergency, is there any reasonable justification for yelling at children? If not, then why not adopt the ideas above and take the action to stop it?

In closing let me just say that there are millions of well-adjusted adults who were yelled at as kids. I would simply say that they arrived as well-adjusted adults in spite of the yelling and not because of the yelling. Do not ever use the old fallacy of, “It was done to me, therefore is justifiable for me to do it to my kids!” as an excuse for your actions. Do what works. Yelling simply does not work very well. Having a plan for dignity and civility works. Use that plan!


Anonymous said...

Just reading your article makes me feel more calm and dignified. I am desperate to have my children listen without blowing a gasket literally. I will get back to you but this is so common sense, I know it will bring change to my family. Thank you, thank you for your common sense. PS Your common sense shows in your son.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article. I am really struggling with this as I have three young children and can get irritated quickly. I appreciate your ideas.

No said...

I feel like your article was intended for me. I really needed someone to tell me what the deal is with me, and you did. I am a big time yeller and I hate it so much. The more I lose my cool by yelling, the more I got angry. Not only have I watch them ignore me, they will repeat the same behavior in no time. I have been told by many others over and over that I have good kids (they are 6 and 4), and I do believe they are good kids. However, I seemed to be expecting a lot more from them. I feel that I should never have to repeat my self twice and they they should know their routine so that I don’t have to remind them over and over. For example, when we get home at 6:00pm, they like to kick their shoes of and sit in front of TV, chill and snack a little while they wait for dinner. Who wouldn’t like that? So right there, I am ready to go of because what I like to see is for them to change as soon as we get home just like I do and wait for dinner with or without snacks providing I might not have chips or what they like to snack on all the time. To make long story short, I yell at my kids specially my 6 yr old almost every single day at least twice: once in the morning and once in the evening. I pretty much stay on their backs on every little thing, and I hate it so much. I think about it every single day soon I get to the office and before I go to bed at night. I am constantly making promises to my self that I will not yell, that I will give them break. After all I understand they are just kids and I should allow them to be kids. I don't understand my self. I don't know what my problem is. Sometimes I feel like it is not really them, it is me. There are other things in life that troubles me, and I think I am constantly taking it on the little once. How unfortunate!!!! I have been thinking about seeking professional counseling. However, I feel relieved and also confident enough to stop yelling without seeking professional help.

Thank you,
Big time Yeller

Mac said...

Dear No,

I am glad that you have found meaning in the article about Yelling at Kids!

Here are a couple of thoughts for you to consider as you move forward with your children and attempt to eliminate unfruitful and self-destructive yelling.

1. Know this: "You cannot do the same thing over and over and expect to get a different result!" If you are yelling at your kids and it is NOT resulting in a response from them that you desire... then stop doing it! If your action is not getting the getting the desired result do not do it again. Choose a different behavior.

2. When you select a different way to communicate with your children please remember this: "Often the worst way to 'say' something to a child is with words." If you have tried using words to communicate to your children what it is that you want them to do when you arrive home in the evening... try demonstrating it! Walk into your house and ask you children to watch you. Then, go through the precise behavior you want them to adopt. Show them with your actions. Ask them to describe to you what you are doing. Notice that this will be applying Rule #4( http://parentingwithdignity.com/PWD/video_series/2-5rules.htm ) from our Parenting with Dignity curriculum. You will be getting them to say for themselves what it is that you want them to learn!

I cannot reccomend strongly enough that you get a copy of our DVD Parenting with Dignity Curriculum and go through the entire course. I know that it will bring about huge and positive changes in your family.


Anonymous said...


I will definetely consider that. And just to let you know, I had a very good day with my kids from get up to go simply because I have chosen not yell and or allow little things to bother me. I got through doing everything I needed to do, we were all happy and even left the house 15 minutes earlyier.

Thank you,

Jennifer said...

I am a teacher and I am a yeller. This is my first year and I teach first grade. I don't even like myself anymore. I hear you. I will listen. I will forgive myself for all my mistakes and I WILL change my behavior.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with what was said in the article. I often yelled at my kids which made me feel bad about myself afterwards. Similar to one of the comments, I think I have too high of expectation of my kids, I expect them to behave nicely every minute and I tend to be bothered by little things as well. This article is very helpful and I will definitely try and take one day at a time...

Anonymous said...

i yell cause none of the calm words make any difference until i yell but they lived with dad too at a different time so i suppose that didn't help in their behavior..Tell me in your wise wisdom..i say in calm words until they do it? I wonder how long that will take..maybe 4 years just for them to do one thing i ask in a calm voice?

Anonymous said...

This is a great article!

monica said...

My son is eight years old and i am one of those parents who cant get a responce without yelli. I hate it soo so much and it does hurt me and i can imagine it hurts him to. but i'd like to know what i should do if he just lets me stand there after i tell him i will mt leave until he does what i say. My son hates me and just wishes he could live with his grandfather who lets ihim do whatever he pleases . it has been so hard for me cause i feel like i have no control over him and i will never. I just dont know what to do anymore i dont want to yell anymore and your advice is wonderful but what do i do if he really dosnt care if i stay next to him all day? please help!!

Anonymous said...

This is a great article. It makes me feel like there is some hope for me yet. I have two boys, one and three, and the three year old is the one I yell at daily. I try to remind myself he is only three, but it is easy to forget because he seems so much older sometimes. He is such a good kid for other adults and at school, so it is frustrating when he won't do simple things I ask him to do, like get dressed in the morning or be nice to his brother. I think the era of "negative enforcement" (timeout, bedtime, spanking,etc.) that we all grew up with in one form or another lends us to treating our own children in that same way. And on some level, expecting it to yield positive results. It seems silly to me after reading this article, that I didn't think of it before because it really is such a simple concept, if I want my son to be respectful of myself and others then he deserves to be treated with the same respect. I have really been wondering lately what is wrong with me and why I let myself get sooo stressed out about the littlest things. I have been questioning whether or not I am a good mother, if I am doing everything wrong or rather anything right and it is so discouraging because no one has the answer. I am not going to yell anymore, I do hope it will be life changing because my family and I sure could use it! Great article, thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

THANKS MUCH. It is like going to talks to learn the things you already know but don't actually follow. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness, this is an excellent article! Very well written, easy to understand and clearly presents the better way to be as a parent! And you know, I was a teacher before I was a sahm and I cringe remembering those times when I lost it in front of my students. I learned that it was completely ineffective with my Jr. High and High Schoolers, and I now know that a 3 year old is no different in that area!! The big difference for me is that I had only about 40 to 60 minutes at a time to manage my temper as a teacher then I could send them on to their next class. Now as a stay-at-home mom of a 3 year old (and 9 month old), it's a much different scenario. It's a lifestyle of self control--such a good thing to have to learn though! Thanks for this sobering wisdom.

Mac said...

Yelling just does not work well for relating to people! I will grant you that, upon occasion, it might get the attention of another... but beyond that is is just useless. I am glad that so many of you are finding this article to be helpful; I sure wish I had it to read back in my first years of teaching!
Mac Bledsoe