It was an afternoon like any other. I had picked my kids up from their after-school activities, and we were driving to dinner at my sister-in-law’s house. Because I’d left work an hour early, I still had some calls to make.
I figured I’d make the calls in the car while driving to dinner — the upside of rush hour traffic was that there’d be plenty of time. Since I mostly write from home in a room off our kitchen, I’m well-practiced at working while keeping an ear out for my kids — or, in this case, an eye on the road.
I put an audiobook on for the kids and used voice recognition to dial my first call, which went to voice mail. As I was leaving a long message, my kids started talking to me at the same time, asking me to turn up the volume on the audiobook. I find it hugely irritating when my teen and preteen kids can hear that I’m talking to someone else but start talking to me anyway.
“Can’t you hear that I was leaving a message??!!” I yelled at them after I thought I hung up the phone. “Can YOU hear and respond to someone who is talking to you while YOU are talking to someone else!!?”
I was getting going, fueled by the day’s stresses. “I HATE IT WHEN YOU TALK TO ME WHEN I’M ALREADY TALKING TO SOMEONE ELSE!! IT MAKES ME FEEL CRAZY!!! AND IT MAKES ME SOUND SO UNPROFESSIONAL!!!”
And then, in my headset, I heard a long beep, and a lady-computer told me that I’d reached the end of the length of the message. Holy crow: I’d been yelling at my kids right into my colleague’s voice mail. Talk about sounding unprofessional!
My kids don’t usually cower (or suddenly obey) when I yell. When I get angry or snappish with them, they say things like “Mom, could you please use a kind voice?” or even “I have a hard time understanding you when you talk to me like that.” Both of these phrases they’ve stolen directly from me; it’s what I say to them when they are demanding or disrespectful or whiney.
But I don’t have a history of changing my own tone in response to their polite/sassy requests. Instead, I’ve justified yelling at my kids. It’s different than when they talk to me in a way that I don’t like. Because I’m the parent. Moms and dads yell when kids make us mad. Kids need to not do the things that make us yell, and then we won’t yell anymore. Ergo, if I’m yelling, clearly it is the kids’ fault, and therefore their responsibility to change.
Except that I always knew, on some level, that this is faulty logic. The embarrassment of yelling at my kids in front of a work colleague provided the jolt of insight I needed to see that my yelling couldn’t be justified.
Moreover, yelling at my kids wasn’t actually changing their behavior. Although we all know that yelling occasionally works in the short-run, generally speaking, it is not an effective teaching tool. As a parenting expert, I’m very well-versed in much more effective ways to shape kids’ behavior and habits.
Enter Rona Renner, a dear friend and long-time colleague — you may know her from the “Happiness Matters” podcasts we did together. Rona is a master parent coach, with a specialty in understanding temperament and, you guessed it, helping parents who lose their temper. And she has a fantastic new book out!
Is That Me Yelling? provided me with the framework that I needed to discover why I was really yelling at my kids, and it gave me the tools for responding differently in the future. I discovered, by using Renner’s “Yelling Tracker,” that I typically only raise my voice with my kids when I’m multi-tasking or stressed out — when I’m really focused on something besides them. Working from home or from the car means that I’m often trying to do two or even three things at once, and this dramatically shortens my fuse.
I worked out a plan to work less in the presence of my kids — and to give them my full attention when I’m with them. They still do things that make me angry; the difference is that I am much more able and likely to respond skillfully to their missteps when I’m not trying to do something else at the same time.
Is That Me Yelling? makes an important contribution to the betterment of humanity. That’s not an overstatement: When we are compassionate and peaceful with our children, they, in turn, become compassionate and peaceful in the world. And in a world filled with strife and irritants, this is just what we need!
Christine Carter’s article Why I Yell at My Kids originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.