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Yelling at the Kids

I grew up in a home where people yelled.

Not just when we were mad or agitated, either. From the time I can remember anything, I remember my mom yelling up the steps at the top of her lungs, letting me know that dinner was ready. And, naturally, I would yell right back.


But when things did get heated, when my little brother and I would act up or fight or just move into some uncontrollable state where my single mom quickly found herself overwhelmed by our youthful insanity, well, she could holler and scream and yell so loudly that I am pretty sure there were squirrels knocked out of trees within a few blocks of our house.

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It’s just the way things were. We weren’t alone; lots of families in our working-class neighborhood communicated with each other more or less at jet engine volume.

But, oh how times have changed. These days, with three kids of my own, there is barely a week that goes by where I don’t read something somewhere that warns us parents of the psychological and social dangers of yelling at our kids. It seems that old-school parenting (screaming, spanking, feeding kids roast beef fat, etc.) has grown hugely unpopular among this new generation of moms and dads who are, let’s face it, desperate to get everything just right.

I’m down with that, I guess. Still, I have to admit that it has been tough for me, despite my love of fatherhood and all, to retrain myself from breathing audio fire down on my kid’s scalps. I mean, kids are flat-out crazy, and you know it and I know it. And although I realize that a lot of that has to do with the facts that their little brains aren’t fully developed or whatever, I have yet to come across that one magical piece of scientific data or parenting expertise that can make me keep my own precious brain from exploding like a firecracker-stuffed melon when I find myself standing there watching my 3-year-old son, Henry, doing cave drawings on the living room walls.

It seems to me that so much of what kids think and do on a regular basis is beyond the realm of most parents' understanding or patience, not so much because we have lost our sense of imagination or our playful spirit, but because whenever we are faced with the reality that our child has done something unimaginably ridiculous right before our very own eyes, we can’t help but inject a little intellect into the situation we are staring at.

I can’t help but think that it just feels kind of wrong, all of this unhinged yelling.

We walk in on a toddler smearing his or her own poo all over the dog or rubbing Chef Boyardee sauce through their own hair, and we instantly check off a little list in our heads of all the alternative choices that the kid could have made, but didn’t for some reason. And it’s that totally shocking difference to us—the wide gulf that we easily recognize between common sense and borderline bananas—and our own children’s failure to "get it" that ultimately causes our nervous system to collapse in on itself.

Then, we yell.

At least some of us do.

So, I’ve been working on it, my yelling. Honestly, I have. Not so much because I want to baby my kids or jump on some overwrought softie parenting bandwagon, but more because, the more I look back, the more I actually think that a lot of the neurotic madness I have known as a grown man (and trust me, there are tons of it stuck to my soul) the more I understand that it’s probably all very well rooted in the constant verbal combat I grew up accepting as "regular life."

Excuses are easy to make when it comes to past generations and our reverence for them. They did the best they could, we tell ourselves. They HAD to whack us in the ass and scream their smoky Marlboro Light reprimands in our face because WE WERE JERKS WHEN WE WERE YOUNG.

Look, there may be some truth to all of that, don’t get me wrong. Yet at the end of the day, if we just stand around defending our parents and our grandparents and every past generation against all the shifty/semi-barbaric parenting stuff they pulled off, we might as well defend their mild-to-medium racism and their rampant sexism and their various infidelities and their taxing alcoholism and their three-pack-a-day cigarette habits as par for the course back in the good old days, too.

See, history, the very act of looking back and deciphering the past, is all about learning from our human mistakes. And, as parents, each of us is machete-chopping down a road where the future, like all futures, is a total blank canvas, an unwritten tale that is ours and ours alone to tell.

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Lately then, whenever I hear the sound of my own bombastic voice bouncing off the walls, ricocheting off of my kid’s foreheads, and boomeranging back into my own puffy red face, no matter what they’ve done, no matter what chaos is rising up all around my exhausted ass—I can’t help but think that it just feels kind of wrong, all of this unhinged yelling.

It comes naturally to me, just like it did to my parents—which, now that I’m really thinking about it, is the lamest excuse in the history of love.

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