JACKIE KLEIN is a devoted mother of two little boys in the suburbs of Portland, Ore. She spends hours ferrying them to soccer and Cub Scouts. She reads child-development books. She can emulate one of those pitch-perfect calm maternal tones to warn, “You’re making bad choices” when, say, someone doesn’t want to brush his teeth.
That is 90 percent of the time. Then there is the other 10 percent, when, she admits, “I have become totally frustrated and lost control of myself.”
It can happen during weeks and weeks and weeks of no camp in the summer, or at the end of a long day at home — just as adult peace is within her grasp — when the 7- or 9-year-old won’t go to sleep.
And then she yells.
“This is ridiculous! I’ve been doing things all day for you!”
Many in today’s pregnancy-flaunting, soccer-cheering, organic-snack-proffering generation of parents would never spank their children. We congratulate our toddlers for blowing their nose (“Good job!”), we friend our teenagers (literally and virtually), we spend hours teaching our elementary-school offspring how to understand their feelings. But, incongruously and with regularity, this is a generation that yells.
“I’ve worked with thousands of parents and I can tell you, without question, that screaming is the new spanking,” said Amy McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, which teaches parenting skills in classes, individual coaching sessions and an online course. “This is so the issue right now. As parents understand that it’s not socially acceptable to spank children, they are at a loss for what they can do. They resort to reminding, nagging, timeout, counting 1-2-3 and quickly realize that those strategies don’t work to change behavior. In the absence of tools that really work, they feel frustrated and angry and raise their voice. They feel guilty afterward, and the whole cycle begins again.”
Amy Wilson, a writer and actress in Manhattan, used to give up shopping for Lent. That was before she had children, now ages 6, 5 and 2. This year she gave up yelling. Or tried to. “It didn’t really work,” she said, “but I definitely yelled less.”
Ms. Wilson has written a humorous autobiographical book about parenting, to be published next year, called “When Did I Get Like This?” An entire chapter is devoted to her personal efforts to curtail her yelling.
“My name is Francesca Castagnoli and I am a screamer,” began a post on Motherblogger.net earlier this year. “Admitting I’m a mom that screams, shouts and loses it in front her kids feels like I’m revealing a dark family secret.”
“It’s not kind,” said Ms. Klein in Oregon. “When I’m done I feel awful.”
To research their book “Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids,” the three authors, Devra Renner, Aviva Pflock and Julie Bort, commissioned a survey of 1,300 parents across the country to determine sources of parental guilt. Two-thirds of respondents named yelling — not working or spanking or missing a school event — as their biggest guilt inducer.
“What blew us away about that is that the one thing you really have ultimate control over is the tone of your voice,” said Ms. Pflock, a child development specialist.
Parental yelling today may be partly a releasing of stress for multitasking, overachieving adults, parenting experts say.
“Yelling is done when parents feel irritable and anxious,” said Harold S. Koplewicz, the founder of the New York University Child Study Center. “It can be as simple as ‘I’m overwhelmed, I’m running late for work, I had a fight with my wife, I have a project due — and my son left his homework upstairs.’ ”
Numerous studies exist on the effect of corporal punishment on children. A new one came out just last month. Led by a researcher at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy, the study concluded that spanking children when they are very young (1-year-old) can slow their intellectual development and lead to aggressive behavior as they grow older. But there is far less data on the more common habit of shouting and screaming in families.
One study that did take a look at the topic — a paper on the “psychological aggression by American parents” published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2003 — found that parental yelling was a near-universal occurrence. Of 991 families interviewed, in 88 percent of them a parent acknowledged shouting, screaming or yelling at the kids at least once (though it didn’t specify how many did it more often) in the previous year.
“We are so accustomed to this that we just think parents get carried away and that it’s not harmful,” said one of the study’s lead authors, Murray A. Straus, a sociologist who is a director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire. “But it affects a child. If someone yelled at you at work, you’d find that pretty jarring. We don’t apply that standard to children.”
Am I the only one who thinks that losing it and screaming at your kids is much, much worse than spanking them?