Can yelling at your kids be damaging to them? You bet.
Is all yelling damaging? No way.
My friend Jen recently posted about striving to become a "Yes" mom; saying yes as often as possible, and reserving No for truly important non negotiable situations. This idea came up in the comments on The One Where I Talk About Spanking, where we try and phrase as much as possible in positive terms, and try to create an environment where Yes is possible much of the time. I love this idea, because it keeps the No as effective and enforceable as possible, while maintaining a reduced conflict, positive environment for kids.
In the context of yelling, this helps set up an environment for the parent where there will be reduced frustration and incidences of yelling (or *other* strong tools we want to either reserve for dire need, or avoid altogether, depending on the parenting philosophy: wink!).
Here's the confounder: I have this kid who lives for putting his toe over the boundaries we have in place, just to check if they are still there. He pushes until he hears No. [anyone care to guess which of my children this might be? No great mystery there =) ha ha] So I've redesigned the Yes mom approach to fit this child, and it looks like this:
"Do NOT ____. You can do _____."
As much as possible, I outline what CAN be done, what is permissible, what is okay, what is good, what is kind, respectful, and within the boundaries. I do this as often as possible BEFORE the actual situation.
For example, we went to the Chapman's for dinner a few weeks ago, and on the drive there I said, "Child (only I used his name: I have to use HIS name to capture his attention or he won't apply what I say to himself. Generalized rules or guidelines hover in the air above his body but don't actually enter his ears), we are going to Kai and Koen's house for supper. While we are there, I would like you to be a good example of how kind and respectful you are, okay? I know you are good at playing with other kids. I want you to remember to be gentle with all of the kids and to be gentle with their house. Okay?"
Bored monotone from the backseat, "Okay."
And then while we are there, I have to arrest his wildness with No, No, No. It just has to be done. Redirection alone doesn't work. Phrasing things positively doesn't work. Saying 'maybe' or 'I don't think so,' or 'That's not a good idea,' when he asks for something doesn't work. He pushes until he hears No.
On the one hand, this is great. He's looking for security. He's feeling loved when he finds the outer boundary of what's acceptable, because we care about him enough to give him boundaries. Easy to give.
On the other hand, this is taxing. I don't want to be the No mom! I get tired of being The Police. I get tired of repeating repeating repeating those boundaries and having them pushed pushed pushed. It pushes me. It makes me tired. It makes me feel undervalued, unrespected, mean, and depersonalized.
And sometimes the No alone doesn't work. Oh yes, and explanations as to the why behind the no are always given, although when he was younger I found these were counterproductive. He was deaf half the time (literally, from the ear infections), and he's a physically oriented child, so a lot of talketytalketytalk was pretty well a waste of energy, and very useless.
NOW he's older, he can hear well consistently, and he is better able to take in explanations. But we have to keep them short, or we lose him.
You know you've lost him when he starts talking in the middle of an explanation, about something completely different. One sentence or less. That's all you get!
So sometimes I yell because I've said No too many times.
Other times, I yell to capture attention.
Other times, I yell because I'm talking over all the noisy boys and need to be heard!
I think these are okay, and although it's hard for me to be in the midst of chronic noise, I'm learning. I'm pretty well used to a higher level of noise than most people just by nature of the makeup of my family (three noisy boys!). But I have to admit to screaming "USE YOUR INSIDE VOICES!!!!" at my toddler boys (kind of a bad example of using your inside voice?) on numerous occasions in the early years.
And I'm no saint now, though I've vastly improved.
I know I've yelled too loud and too angry when my throat hurts afterwards.
On the one hand, what's childhood if you don't have a few examples of pushing your parents to losing their temper to share amongst yourselves as siblings? They make for funny family stories. On the other hand, a child who lives with this kind of chronic undercurrent of anger and unpredictable outbursts of yelling, or just maybe an example of an incredibly unhappy parent, will likely not find stories of their parents losing their tempers funny, or something to share as siblings.
Sometimes as parents we go through rough patches, and that is where Grace Based Parenting carries us. When my two oldest kids were little, I was angry a lot. I was anxious beyond measure. I was unpredictable much of the time. I still tried to be as healthy as possible, and I tried hard to be a Yes mom, but mostly I just tried to survive.
If I had stayed in that place for years, it would have damaging effects on my kids. Thankfully, with help and support and experience and reading helpful books and connecting with my village and examining and reexamining myself, I was able to claw my way out of that dark place. So I have grace for myself: I did the best I could at the time, and strove to be better. And my kids show evidence of this grace as well: they appear healthy and kind and empathetic and show signs of developing self awareness and autonomy and initiative and a sense of accomplishment, despite my more frequent yelling when they were little, and my far less frequent but by no means disappeared yelling now.
So is yelling unethical? What do you think?