Yelling At Kids Teaches!

By: Mac Bledsoe

The point here is that yelling at kids teaches them lots of stuff but it rarely, if ever, teaches them anything of much value. I do not think that yelling indelibly scars kids unduly nor does them irreparable psychological damage; but it certainly does not help them to learn productive ways of interacting with the world. I guess that you could say that I am opposed to yelling at kids for the same reason that I am opposed to punishment; it does not work in any way that it is even close to the way that it is intended.

I was sent to my room thousands of times for teasing my sisters. I was told to go in my room and think about how to treat my sisters. I did. I thought about how I was going to get them out behind the barn just as soon as I got out of my room and hold their heads under water in the horse trough for tattling on me. Sending me to my room did not teach me how to get along with my sisters. The desired or intended result was a far cry from the real outcome. My parents intention in sending me to my room was to teach me how to treat my sisters in a much nicer manner but what they got was far different from what they intended. Yelling at kids brings about a very similar kind of outcome.

A child who is yelled at on a regular basis simply learns that he doesn't have to listen to instructions delivered in a quiet and dignified voice.

Teaching does not require intent!

When we are with kids we are teaching every minute we are in their presence! Even though we may have no intention to teach nor any idea about what we want to teach… we are teaching just the same. Kids learn our language at their own pace and other than a little work on some specific vocabulary they learn it quite completely with little intent on our part. Kids rapidly learn the tense of verbs and they often learn it from parents who cannot intellectually define the tenses of the verbs that they taught to their kids! The point is that kids learn many things from us without us intending to teach them.

Kids in France speak French. Kids in Japan speak Japanese. However, take the French girl and raise her in the Japanese home and she would speak Japanese! Raise the Japanese kid in the French home and he will speak French. Raise them in my home and both will speak English. Language acquisition may be genetic. All normal human beings speak; but the specific language that they speak is learned! Kids learn the language that they are exposed to.

Not only do kids learn the spoken language they are exposed to, but they also learn to interpret and use all of the non-verbal ways of communication. They learn what a civil tone of voice means. They learn what words like "please" and "thank you" mean. Children raised in the presence of adults who rarely say things in a conversational tone and who never enforce anything said in that conversational tone learn that adults rarely mean what they say in a conversational tone. Kids who hear yelling all of the time begin to feel that it is normal conversation. They will react to this language just as naturally as kids in France react to French. If yelled commands are the norm then kids begin to learn that yelled commands are normal so then they react to them in a like manner. Kids can, and do, even learn that yelled commands need not be listened to while civilly expressed commands can be ignored. I witness that dynamic in many homes.

In working with a family for the 20/20 program I found a couple with a son who didn't seem to obey many commands or requests for action from his parents. I watched a week of tape from their home and discovered an amazing thing. Every time his mother or father said his middle name in a loud and yelling tone of voice, his head turned and he listened to what they said and he usually did it! "Joe!" did not get his attention or action. "Joseph!" was equally ineffective. "Young man!" expressed in a conversational tone of voice di little to interrupt his play.

But when his parents said "Joseph Alex!" in a loud, yelling kind of voice, he quite often listened and usually complied! Why? They had taught him that when they said his middle name in a shouted voice, his time of ignoring was done and he knew that they would enforce the following command, so he complied.

Joseph Alex had learned exactly what his mom and dad had taught him, even though they did not intend to teach that to him. It was pretty simple to restructure effective communication in that family. All that the parents had to do was to duplicate their actions that they had previously used with their son when they shouted his middle name, only in the restructured situation they had to do it with their first civil and polite request for "Joseph Alex" to perform some desired action. Say it civilly and politely… but enforce it. It did not take long before Joseph was willingly obeying dignified and respectful commands. His parents had taught him a new language! The first step lay in restructuring their own plan of action and in taking control of what they were teaching their son. And man did they all feel much more calm and less stressed.

This brings us to another very important reason why yelling at kids is highly ineffective. Yelling destroys the dignity of both the parent and the child. Kids can learn to respond to calm demeanor just as easily as they can learn to respond to yelling. When parents yell at kids the stress level of everyone in the home goes up, but "yelling-related stress" increases for no one more than the parent. I learned this simple concept while teaching.

One day, while I was teaching at Walla Walla High School, I had had a particularly tough day of being angry and loud with students and was feeling really stressed out by my ineffective interaction with my students. (The kids were probably OK with it… they had learned the "language" of that guy who yells during third period!) My stress level was near the breaking point. In my frustration, I sought out the council of Lola Whitner, a master teacher who taught in the room next to mine. I said to her, "Lola, how do you do it. You are sixty-five years old, you are a perfect lady, you are barely five feet tall, you speak to kids in a respectful conversational, tone and yet the same students that I feel compelled to yell at are so quiet and respectful with you, and you never raise your voice. Help me. I must learn to do what you do!"

Very quietly she replied, "You have quite a temper, Mac. I can hear you through the walls. (She chuckled as she said that.) However, I have one question for you; can you ever control your temper? Can you ever speak quietly and respectfully to your students?"

"Well, yes, sometimes I can control my temper," I replied. "But often I just blow up."

"Well, Mac," she replied very calmly, "If you control your temper some of the time then you can control it. Now that we have established that you are capable of controlling your temper may I point out to you that if you do not control your temper it is a choice! Why don't you choose to control it all of the time?"

Her simple question changed my life forever! I finally realized that my actions were my choice! I never yelled in anger in a class ever again! I chose to be different and I was! The biggest thing that changed was my feeling of control and power over my life. I once and for all preserved my dignity and the dignity of my students by choosing to not yell; by choosing to speak in a civil, dignified, respectful, and polite manner. They rapidly learned that even though I was not yelling, I still meant what I was saying. My classroom became a respectful, dignified, and relaxed place; just like Lola's.

I was recently asked what would be my short-term suggestion as a solution for parents who found themselves yelling at their kids, and I have none.

I do not put much stock in short-term solutions to life-long types of problems. Lola did not propose a short-term solution to my problem and and a short-term solution would have been of little value to me. Therefore, I would not suggest one for anyone else. The solution to the problem of yelling at kids lies in changing the manner of speaking to children forever. The long-term, life-changing solution does not involve going into a room and shouting, or hitting a punching bag. The solution does not lie in counting to ten or leaving the room. The solution lies in deciding to be different, today, tomorrow, and forever. The solution lies in letting the calm of self-control waft over you. The solution to yelling at your children lies in committing to a plan of action for how you will act before the yell-triggering situation arises; and then following your plan. This plan will bring dignity and peace to a family.

Now, to augment this newfound self-control derived by deciding to be calm, dignified, and respectful, and committing to a plan of speaking in a conversational voice, it is necessary to anticipate the situations or circumstances where you are tempted to yell. The situations are always quite predictable. Identify those times and then develop a very specific plan of action for those situations. Actually practice the words that you will say and the manner in which you will say them.

The Situation!

For example, let's say that one time when you have lost control and yelled in the past was when you would ask your kids to help with setting the table for dinner. At this time they would previously drive you crazy when they would just ignore your requests for help. So you would resort to yelling with little if any change in their behavior. Build a plan for this specific situation.

The Plan!

Rather than standing in the kitchen and yelling, as you have previously done with little results, go to where your kids are and say respectfully, "I need your help. Would you please get up now and come in and set the table? Look at me kids. I am smiling and I am speaking in a polite tone of voice. I even said ‘please', but I really mean it." If they do not immediately start to move to set the table, move squarely in front of them and ask politely in a calm tone, "Excuse me, but what did I just ask you to do?" (You may have to point out to them that you just asked a question that you wish to have answered because they are now in their Ignore-Mom-or-Dad-mode.) Stay right in front of them and wait for their answer. As soon as they can repeat what you have said, say, "Ok, so you know what you are to do and I am going to wait right here until you start, so please get started right now." All of this is said in a respectful and pleasant tone of voice at a conversational volume.

Be patient. It may even take weeks for this new dignified approach to begin to take hold because the kids have literally had years ignoring your conversational statements and years of hearing you yell at them. It will take time to "learn the new language" that you are speaking!

All too often I find that parents are looking for gimmicks or tricks to use with their kids, when what really works is to make simple and fundamental changes in their own ways of thinking and acting. Usually the people who yell at their kids are the same ones who will become the most upset if their kids were ever to yell back. It is pretty easy to get caught in a trap of holding higher standards for kids' behavior than we hold for our own behavior.

Some Key Questions

Now, before we leave this topic of yelling at kids, I would like to throw out one last question for the consideration of anyone who is choosing to yell at a child.

"On what basis have you decided that you are justified in yelling at your kids?"

To follow up that question here are a few more to answer.

"Is it justifiable to yell at kids because you are older?"

"Do you deem it justifiable to yell at your kids because you are bigger?

"Do you view it to be reasonable to yell at your kids because you are the parent and have parental authority?"

"Do you feel justified in yelling at your children because you are older and have more life experience?"

It would seem to me that all of these would constitute reasons for you to NOT yell at your kids. "Is there any viable justification for yelling at a child?"

Yes, I will grant you that it might be justifiable to yell at a kid if he was running toward the street and a truck was coming, or if she was reaching for a boiling pan of water on the stove; but short of an emergency, is there any reasonable justification for yelling at children? If not, then why not adopt the ideas above and take the action to stop it?

In closing let me just say that there are millions of well-adjusted adults who were yelled at as kids. I would simply say that they arrived as well-adjusted adults in spite of the yelling and not because of the yelling. Do not ever use the old fallacy of, "It was done to me, therefore is justifiable for me to do it to my kids!" as an excuse for your actions. Do what works. Yelling simply does not work very well. Having a plan for dignity and civility works. Use it!

Mac Bledsoe, President and Founder of Parenting with Dignity, has traveled the nation speaking to parents and teaching how to instill a sense of responsible decision making in their kids. He has now spoken in every one of the fifty states. He is the author of the successful book and video series, Parenting with Dignity. A former teacher, he and his wife live in Montana. For more information please contact

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