Raising Happiness


Why I Yell at My Kids

April 29, 2014 | The Main Dish, Book Reviews | 0 comments

Do you sometimes yell at your kids, just like Christine Carter? A new book can help.

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 audio book on for the kids and used voice recognition to dial my first call, which went to voicemail. 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 pre-teen 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!!?”


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 voicemail. 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!


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Raising Happiness


Not Shocked—Research Parents Can Learn From

January 14, 2010 | Book Reviews | 2 comments

A review of NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Did you know that nearly all children lie—six year olds at a rate of about once an hour? That's not the only bad news Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman give us in NurtureShock. It also turns out that most kids are probably not getting enough sleep, and this sleep deprivation hinders their learning and brain development permanently. Oh, and the way we praise our kids is likely making them insecure and unmotivated.

Did I just make you want to buy this book? Bronson and Merryman have cleverly (some might say cynically) framed their book to speak to parents' worse fears. But even though NurtureShock's not-so-feel-good framing runs counter to my propensity to see the glass Half Full , it does offer a fascinating tour through some recent and provocative research on children.

Although the authors can make parents' instincts about children seem incredibly off the mark, NurtureShock readers might want to keep in mind that there is just as much research out there—or more—that can be deemed the science of the blazingly obvious. Contrary to the book's premise, research is finally vetting many of those parenting practices that have been preached for centuries by grandmothers and philosophers alike—like the fact that family dinners, time spent in meditative reflection, and old-fashioned unstructured playtime are all good for kids.

The real contribution of NurtureShock is not that it reveals how incredibly little we parents know, but that it shows how our materialistic, achievement-oriented culture can mislead us about how best to provide for our children's health and happiness. We buy into the importance of having our children labeled "gifted" early in life; we get carried away trying to pack too many activities into our kids' lives, when what they really need is more sleep and free play; we spend billions of dollars on gimmicky videos hoping to give our kids an academic edge.

My recommendation is that we read NurtureShock and not feel anxious that we are doing everything wrong, but rather simply appreciate the main service it provides: distilling scores of academic studies through engaging storytelling, saving us from having to wade through barely readable academic journals.

What could make the book even more helpful would be recommendations for actions parents can take based on the research Bronson and Merryman uncover. It's one thing to know that our children are liars, for example; it's another to understand what we should do with that knowledge.

For example, children lie mostly because they are trying to keep us happy (and to avoid being punished). So we need to make sure they understand clearly that we are happiest with them when they tell the truth. Researchers reduced lying in Canadian boys by 75 percent and girls by 50 percent by reading them a book (no longer in print, I checked) in which George Washington's father declares that he is glad his son cut down the cherry tree—because hearing young George tell the truth is better than "having a thousand cherry trees." There's nothing that complicated or counter-intuitive about that lesson for parents.

This business of raising children can, of course, be incredibly difficult. But, once you get past its alarmist framing, NurtureShock shows us that simple shifts in our understanding can make us significantly better parents.

© 2010 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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