I like to think I’m a good mama. I successfully and happily homeschool my 6- and 4-year-olds; I do things like order Kiwi Crate and bake dinosaur cupcakes. My kids don’t get too much screen time, and the screen time they do get tends to be old-school Scooby Doo and carefully selected educational television. We attachment parent. I try positive parenting. They roughhouse without beating and play sweetly together most of the time. I can recite But Not the Hippopotamus, Dr. Seuss’s ABC, and Mr. Brown Can Moo, in no small thanks to my 2-year-old.
But we were having a bad day. Maybe breakfast hadn’t gone well, with people wanting something other than what I served. Maybe my oldest had whined through his schoolwork, capping that off with a tantrum about writing. Maybe the house was a mess. Maybe that mess was mostly kids’ toys. These are the usual stressors in my household. Whatever happened, my oldest son did something. And I yelled at him.
He narrowed his eyes and glared, then stomped off in the direction of his room. “You yell at me all the time for no reason anyway,” he shot back.
My chest clutched. Tears rose up in my eyes. I try to be a good mama. I try so hard.
And here I was yelling again. Which clearly, despite my best efforts, had been happening a lot lately. I yelled at the kids to pick up their toys. I yelled at the kids to stop sitting on each other. I yelled at them to share their things, or stop begging their brother to share his things, or just let the baby hold it, just for a minute. I yelled at them for making a mess of the living room and for leaving their shoes in the hallway. And to a kid, even a harsh voice, regardless of volume, counts as yelling.
And not only did I yell, but I raised my voice for reasons my kids didn’t understand. Maybe they didn’t think they’d made a mess, or their brothers had made it instead and hence it had nothing to do with them. Maybe they didn’t understand why they had to share or not share or let the baby get involved. Kids aren’t great at empathy or sharing, after all. Maybe they’d forgotten that shoes go in the shoe pile next to the couch. So when I yelled at them, it didn’t make sense.
So I yelled … and then I cried.
I told my son I was sorry I had yelled at him, that I shouldn’t have raised my voice and could have been more polite. I had also forgotten that he has ADHD, and sometimes genuinely just doesn’t hear me. I could have touched him on the shoulder and then made my request. I could have done a lot of things other than let one of my most important relationships feel angry enough to stomp back to his room.
There was only one solution. I couldn’t yell. I had to truly embrace the positive parenting ethos and find other solutions to raising my voice. It’s hard, especially when you’re angry. It’s difficult to be creative. But I vowed to do it.
Sometimes I screwed up. Like when I anticipated rebellion, and told my kids, in a polite voice, they needed to clean their bedroom or their playroom — they could pick — but whatever was left on the floor when they were done was going to Goodwill. Everyone began to cry, even the baby, who wept, “No send my stuff to Goodwill!” It put everyone in a foul mood. My oldest cleaned; my middle son played; my oldest got mad. They kept coming to me angry at one another, in tears.
I finally started to cry myself. Then I drew myself up and asked my oldest son how I could get him to clean up. “Ask us more nicely,” he said.
“But that doesn’t work,” I replied. “I’ve tried that.”
We left it at a détente. But when I try again, I’ll offer a reward instead of a punishment.
Other times it went well. Little moments, like when I asked my kids kindly to take their plates to the sink, and they did it. It saved me from complaining about dirty plates later and talking about them in a harsh voice. I’ve tried to join in on cleanup time as much as my back will allow, or at least stand there and supervise, which seems to help. Sometimes, I just don’t sweat the small stuff, like shoes in the hallway or a messy living room. I just keep my mouth shut and take care of it.
I still yell sometimes, like when I told my 4-year-old to get out of the room while I was putting the baby to sleep. I asked politely twice, and he wasn’t listening. He cried on the way out, his lip stuck out fat and sad. I could have gotten up and led him out. I could have asked him why he wasn’t leaving. But it’s hard, in the moment, to think of this stuff.
What my son said to me made me cry. It told me I wasn’t the parent I wanted to be, and that’s gut-wrenching to hear. But it also helped me change my parenting to a gentler, more positive, less yell-y style. I hope the more I practice it, the easier it will become. After all, my kids are three of the most important people in my life. I want our relationship to be loving and positive, not fraught with anger. And now, I think I know how to fix that.More On