In a Nutshell: If you want your children to hear what you say, don’t yell.
Over Christmas Break, in the spirit and giving and receiving, I picked up a nasty virus that has wiped out my voice. I can only muster up a croaky little whisper. As I whisper my questions and instructions to my family, I am reminded of a very true principle: People generally respond back in the same tone in which they are addressed. I am amazed at how many times in the last few days I have asked a child something in a little whisper and they have responded back in a little whisper. Even my ultra-boisterous three-year-old responds in a tiny voice. They are still yelling loud enough to be heard in a remote corner of Canada when they are playing with each other, but when I ask quietly, they tend to respond quietly.
Most parents are yellers. By nature, I’m a yeller too, and I have worked my whole life to cool down my hot head. Parenting is just such a frustrating adventure at times that it seems my best intentions to smile sweetly and speak kindly are easily thrown to the wind when my sons become a wrestling ball of destruction or I find my pajama-clad daughters combing their dolls’ hair when we’re 5 minutes late for school. But I have learned a couple things about kids brains that convinces me yelling is not the way to go. In fact, it’s pretty stupid. Here are just two reasons why…
1. Kids don’t learn when they are scared. If your child is worried about what the raving lunatic in front of them is going to do next, they are not hearing a word you say. When correcting a child, we want them to use reason and problem solving so they will learn from mistakes and improve. In the brain, this type of learning takes place in the in the frontal lobe. But when faced with anger, danger, or stress, the part of the brain that is active is the brain stem, responsible for the fight or flight response. Their minds are dealing with your anger and their fear, not with the reasons they should have behaved and their plans for future self-improvement. You have primed them to fight (yell, argue back, hit) or flight (withdraw physically or emotionally, shut down), but not to learn.
2. Children mirror our emotion. In studies, babies only days old make facial expressions that are modeled to them. They continue doing so through life. In fact, one theory maintains that we have literal “mirror neutrons” in our brains that fire both when we act and when we observe an action performed by someone else. Basically, the same response that causes us to flinch when someone else stubs their toe can cause children to reflect the angry emotions they observe. Not exactly what you want when the kid is already out of control!
The good news is we can use this response to our advantage. When you handle a misbehaving child, focus on what emotions you are displaying, both with your voice, facial expressions, and body language. When you model calmness in stressful situations, you are likely to help an angry child come up to your level, instead of the other way around.
Like I said in the first post, “I strongly believe there isn’t a punishment effective enough, or a discipline technique clever enough to make any real and lasting improvement without a fun, warm, nurturing, positive atmosphere.” If allow your temper to destroy relationships, you have lost your effectiveness as a parent. If you choose to yell your corrections to your child, it is for you. It is you venting your frustration. Don’t talk yourself into thinking that you are teaching, because they aren’t learning.
With all that said, most of will lose our cool this week. Most of us will today. We are a work in progress as much as our kids. Apologize, move on, and try harder tomorrow. And maybe, the next time your daughter decorates the cat in your favorite lip stick, or your teenager puts a car in the garage without opening the door first, you can remember their little brains and choose not to yell…so they can hear what you say.