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On Yelling — and Trying To Channel Claire Huxtable

I read this recent New York Times piece called “Shouting is the New Spanking” on yelling with great interest, because I have been known to yell at my family members. Okay, family members, you can stop laughing now. I haven’t been “known” to yell, rather I could be described as “a yeller.”

It feels a bit embarrassing to admit this shameful thing. It’s socially unacceptable and, let’s face it, it has class and ethnic overtones. I picture struggling Jewish and Italian mothers hanging out of New York tenements screaming for their kids to come in for dinner. Screaming seems to go with frizzy hair. It’s hard to imagine that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ever yelled at her kids.

Perhaps it’s more about status and class than membership in an ethnic minority.

Think about the difference between Edith and Archie on “All in the Family”, a white working class couple from Queens who constantly yelled at each other and their daughter and son-in-law, and “The Cosby Show,”, about a well-educated professional black couple and their children from Brooklyn Heights. Claire Huxtable never raised her voice — a meaningful look or raised eyebrow seemed to keep her kids in line. In fact, the angrier she got, the more honeyed her voice became.

I aspire to Claire Huxtable power and control. But let’s face it, even after almost 16 years of parenting three children, my patience is sorely tested by my 8 year old having a major melt down. I just can’t take the kvetching!

Over at “Double X” Emily Yoffe has posted a piece about being a yeller, and admirably says that

I’ve made a conscious effort over the years to reduce what was becoming habitual voice-raising. And whenever I hear my own decibel level increase, I’m aware that I’ve just damaged my authority. This doesn’t mean I never lose it (and I think it’s important for kids to understand that people can get really mad at each other and then make up), but I’ve found that when a raised voice is a rare occurence, your child hears you much better.

I’m not sure that I buy this bit of conventional parenting wisdom.

Like Yoffe, I too have made a concerted effort to yell less, but the truth is I haven’t been as successful as she apparently has. I am not a particularly patient woman and I just have little capacity to listen to whining.

And, as the mother of three children who each has a different personality, I find that one size does not fit all.

Each responds best to a different approach when it comes to discipline and discussion. And that too varies by age and maturity. I have one child who is very, very sensitive to being yelled at but doesn’t seem to hear me when I tell that child, for the umpteenth time, to hang up their jacket, in a regular tone of voice. A raised tone of voice is the only thing that sometimes gets this child’s attention, though alternating it with a very controlled, quiet voice is also effective.

One of my other kids responds best, these days, to a combination of gentle speech and a raised tone of voice when they are having a hard time. Sometimes a loud voice is needed to get through to that child in the midst of their being upset about something, but then it is most effectively paired with a hug and gentle reassurances. Another of my children is responsive to most requests or directions in a regular tone of voice, so it is rare that I raise my voice to that child.

But I want to distinguish between productive yelling and abusive yelling.

I know well what the latter feels like.

I grew up in a house where my parents were angry and depressed, and alienated from one another, but they rarely yelled at each other. They mostly went their separate, sad ways. One parent abusively screamed at me, which did terrible damage. But just as damaging was the absence of nurturing from the other parent, who was unable to deal with the emotional rawness of what was going on and so just walked away.

So there’s yelling, and then there’s yelling. Just like there is silence, and then there is silence. Neither is always the best approach. I would rather be yelled at than frozen out, myself, because if something is said — even if it is yelled — it can be dealt with.

Both may come from a place of feeling powerless, but there’s a distinction to be made between belittling, insulting screaming, and a raised tone of voice that can, I think, actually be constructive.

Contrary to the current wave of popular parenting opinion, I don’t think that all yelling is inherently bad or destructive.

That said, it’s a tool best used intentionally, though I tend not to believe any parent who says that they’ve never wanted to spank their child or that they never yell, or that they only have arguments with their spouse behind closed doors. None of us is able to do everything with intention — particularly when we’re upset and frustrated.

But I’m working on my own control over when I use this tool. And, I live in Brooklyn, not far from the fictional Huxtables. Maybe one day I, like Claire Huxtable, will have the ability to use a mellifluous voice to get my children’s attention each and every time.

Good luck with that.

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