If Yelling at Kids Is as Harmful as Spanking, What the Hell Is Left?


I grew up in Tennessee in the 1980s. This means that when I wasn’t being spanked by a paddle, a hand, a belt, or a switch of my own choosing, I was being yelled at. Clearly, I have an extremely well adjusted attitude towards authority figures and a deep, abiding love for all mankind. Which is why it comes as zero surprise to me that yelling at kids, studies say, not only isn’t any better than spanking them, it’s just as bad. What, then, is a parent to do?

The study in question comes courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh. Researchers tracked 967 middle-school aged kids for two years. They were from about 10 public schools in the city, and were from middle-class families that were not deemed “high-risk” by the researchers. The result, explains a piece at the Washington Post: Kids of parents who yelled or used “harsh verbal discipline,” especially with cursing or insults, were, no duh, “more likely to be depressed or have behavior problems.”

Kicker #1: It didn’t make them stop doing whatever they were doing that was so bad in the first place.

Kicker #2: It didn’t even matter if the household was otherwise “generally warm and loving.”

So the whole “doing it for their own good” thing doesn’t really cut it, Yelly Pants.

Look, we don’t need to be scientists to understand why this is true. We know it intuitively in spite of the way our weird, harsh, Puritanical roots override this human logic. Getting yelled at sucks. It makes you feel bad. Kids need guidance, knowledge, discipline, love, not to be harshed on for being, well, kids. It’s their job to test boundaries, and your job to set them and reinforce them in a warm, loving way. FOREVER.

And, yes, it also takes forever. Which probably makes you want to yell more. But don’t! It does this:

“If you yell at your child, you either create somebody who yells back at you or somebody who is shamed and retreats,” said Meghan Leahy, a mother of three and a parenting coach in Northwest Washington. “You’re either growing aggression or growing shame. Those are not characteristics that any parents want in their kids.”
“When people raise their voices, the message typically isn’t, ‘Wow, I love you, you’re a great child,’ ” Sendek said. “You’re usually saying something negative, and ripping down their self-esteem.”

It’s like I can feel you bristling when you read that, because everywhere we look, we are hearing about how unwarranted, unchecked self-esteem is why Millennials are so terrible. The truth is, it’s why anyone is terrible from any generation: I typically discover that anyone in my entire life I’ve ever disliked usually turns out to be someone who was coddled beyond all belief.

But the big thing I think we all need to consider is that being coddled is not the same thing as being lovingly disciplined without yelling or physical punishment (or public shaming, which seems to be popular these days).

I know what you’re thinking. Bribing! Good old-fashioned bribing. But sorry, that doesn’t work either. Studies show it is “unreliable, ineffective” and tends to make the kid not give two shits about doing the thing without the reward.

So uh, ha, uh, OMG, uh, Jesus, so, WHAT THE FUCK IS OK TO DO? Because you know, if you can’t hit ’em or scream at ’em, bribe ’em or shame ’em, what’s left?

You know the answer. Let’s all say it together: Rational Discussion. Patience. Piece-a-cake, eh? Just instantly become the most zen version of yourself you ever were, leaning into frustration and impatience and agitation, and instead, coming out the other side with a calm voice, endless patience, a deep, rich well of affection and warmth, and a vast wisdom culled from centuries of meditative arts and Lifetime movies.

That’s right: Talk talk talk it out ’til you can’t talk no more.

Sigh. But for those of you who don’t think that’s possible, try this:

  • Perfect “the look.”
  • Start a family punk band whose songs are limited entirely to the way your child feels when you give him or her “the look.”
  • Call the band The Look.
  • Have band gear set up nearby so that kid can hop “onstage” and begin strumming/drumming moodily/angrily whenever he or she senses “the look” is coming.
  • Sometimes, for fun, try to beat your kid to that stage and get to the guitar first.
  • Strum your own moody song about how you feel about how he or she feels about your “the look.”
  • Enlist your child to help you write and perform a one-act play reenacting the questionable behavior and the role of your “the look” in it.
  • Call that play The Look.
  • Hold a mock trial with all family members where all misbehavior must be prosecuted and defended in a court of law.
  • Call that trial The People vs. The Look.
  • Set aside copious funds for years of therapy to treat look-induced PTSD.
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