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To Yell, Perchance to Scream

My brother Sean and I were sitting at our round kitchen table eating lunch one sticky summer afternoon in the middle of my childhood, when my father opened the freezer to survey its contents and figure out what he’d make for supper that night. This freezer was always unreasonably disorganized and packed to the gills...It was like an unexploded mine, waiting to combust and assault you with frozen shrapnel the moment you opened its door.
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Reprinted with permission from A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum (Wyatt-MacKenzie, 2007).

My brother Sean and I were sitting at our round kitchen table eating lunch one sticky summer afternoon in the middle of my childhood, when my father opened the freezer to survey its contents and figure out what he’d make for supper that night. This freezer was always unreasonably disorganized and packed to the gills. Tin foil mysteries, hard as granite. Cans upon cans of frozen juice concentrate. Half gallons of sherbet and Friendly’s coffee ice cream. It was like an unexploded mine, waiting to combust and assault you with frozen shrapnel the moment you opened its door.

And in this particular instance, it was a whole frozen chicken that got my dad. On his bare foot. So enraged that the chicken so viciously injured him, my dad shouted a blue streak as he grabbed the dead bird and dropkicked it through the doorway to our back porch with the uninjured foot...thus injuring a second appendage. Sean and I laughed because our dad looked ridiculous clutching his newly injured foot, hopping around like a foiled Homer Simpson, angrily muttering to himself.

My family has never been great at anger management. For people in my bloodline, moments of frustration and anger tend to approach quickly, like a freak storm dropping out of the sky, and just as rapidly blowing over when reason envelops us like a high pressure zone. We then take a deep breath, make sport of our own idiotic reaction, and issue the proper apologies to any witnesses for the behavior.

Since having my own children, I haven’t dropkicked frozen food, but I have carried on this dubious family tradition. I shout and struggle to keep my emotional responses in check when faced with juvenile mischief or, even worse, potentially dangerous juvenile actions.

Just a point of clarification here, and given the current parenting climate where parents are judged and criticized mercilessly (and mostly out of context) for everything they do, I feel compelled to qualify myself: When it comes to my kids, I don’t name call. I don’t belittle. I, as a voracious consumer of parenting literature, always criticize the behavior, not the child. My shouting is the result of my gut reactions to situations, and is then quickly followed by me verbally employing my powers of reason.

Here’s a sample of what may cross my lips during a moment of anger at my kids:

    “What are you doing?” (Upon finding children who’d written ALL over themselves and the kitchen table with permanent marker.)

“Stop that NOW!” (After finding one child threatening another sibling with a hammer.)

“Everyone come down to the play room RIGHT NOW!” (After finding that not only had the jungle border print been torn off the play room walls, but the shreds of wallpaper border—along with dirty diapers, empty candy wrappers and soiled paper napkins—had been tossed into the bulkhead door area off the play room leading to the back yard, rendering my house unknowingly unlocked for an indeterminate amount of time.)

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Once my initial rush of hot anger passes, I usually pull the offending kid (or kids as the case may be) aside, squat down and talk calmly with the child. I give him or her a chance to tell me, in the child’s own words, what occurred and, if possible, why.

Despite my family’s history of hair-trigger emotional outbursts, I’m doing my best not to blow my cool whenever I feel the compulsion to do so. I’m perpetually working on not becoming one of those ineffective, yapping parents to whom the children don’t listen, whose yelling is simply tuned out like the sound of an annoying airplane flying over head.

I’m hardly alone in this constant internal struggle to not blow my stack because, as we all know, children can be infuriating. A November 2003 study in the “Journal of Marriage and Family” of 991 American parents found that almost every parent surveyed had shouted at their child in the past year. It didn’t matter how much money the parents made, what kind of educational or cultural background from hence they came: Everybody yelled. But in today’s parenting climate, we all feel like we’re fugitives because we shout at our children behind closed doors, fearing retribution, scolding and scorn from the parenting gurus and their faithful disciples just waiting to chastise us for exhibiting our humanity.

You know who I’m talking about. I’m referring to that cadre of parenting experts out there who like to tell you and me that everything we know and do about parenting is wrong. An entire industry has been built around the concept of making us feel guilty about being human, about having real reactions to real situations, about using our guts when it comes to making decisions for our children and for our lives. Within the parenting industry, there’s a core group out there trying to make me and 99 percent of the other parents out there feel like monsters because we shout at our children. A coauthor of the aforementioned 2003 studying on shouting – the researchers called any form of yelling, regardless of its severity, “psychological aggression”— told a reporter that parents should never yell or scream. (That’s NEVER. That’s insane.) “It’s harmful and it is not necessary,” he told the Scripps Howard News Service in February 2004.

The creator of a mini-empire – known as ScreamFree living – has a book out entitled, cleverly enough, ScreamFree Parenting. While he offers some genuinely useful tips on handling some children’s emotional outbursts, the author leaves virtually no wiggle room for real life parents who are not always perfect. Instead, the author and the researcher judge the likes of me, trying to shame me by saying that when I blow off steam on occasion, I’m putting pressure on my kids to make them feel as though they must calm me down. What a horrible, reckless mother I must be.

Both the researcher and the ScreamFree guy mean well. They want what’s best for all children, I’m sure. But what they’re doing in the meantime is demonizing a wide swath of parents, making us feel like we’re fatally flawed, like we have no idea how badly we hurt our children on a daily basis simply by having natural, human reactions.

(That’s why we need their studies, their books and their products. Guilt can equal profits and national television exposure. Cha-Ching. But anything positive they may have to offer — like helpful suggestions on how to maintain one’s cool — is drowned in a sea of guilt and judgment.)

When I finished reading these studies and other finger-wagging parenting screeds, I felt like a big fat failure. Then I picked up a copy of It Takes a Parent, a book by nationally-syndicated columnist Betsy Hart. I felt the storm clouds part and my confidence return. Her book emphasized that these parenting experts insist that anything short of perfect parenting is unacceptable. I felt better after reading her book because I know in my own heart that I love my children and try my best to do right by them. There are times when I do still shout, but I know that they will survive and still love me.

My name is Meredith. And I’m a shouter, and still a good mom.

—Meredith O’Brien


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