If you haven’t already read Rachel Macy Stafford’s fantastic blog post (picked up by The Huffington Post) about yelling at your kids, please do so now. A friend of mine posted it on Facebook this week, and I blinked away the tears as she described scenario after scenario that had played out in my own home, my children being children and I being a tyrant.
As anyone who has done it can attest, parenting is hard. Way harder than anything I’ve ever done before. It’s incredibly difficult to remember that my kids’ minds are still developing and that logic conversation about “choices” isn’t always possible. It took me several years as a teacher to realize this about teenagers. They may look like adults, and the twenty-eight-year-old actors playing teenagers on some of my favorite television shows may behave like adults, but nearly all of the students who fill my high school English classrooms are very, very young. In the beginning of my career, I had a hard time distinguishing between my mistakes and the children’s, or even the relationship between the two, and I spent many a night wallowing in the traumas of my day. Now, more than a dozen years in, I’m still traumatized by some of the things my students do and say when they feel threatened–threatened by a phone call I’ll be making to their parents, by a B- on a report card, by being exposed when I call on them in class to comment on the previous night’s reading–yet the trauma is relatively momentary and I’m able to quickly wipe the slate clean in my interactions with any given student.
This is not the case with my own children however. I’ve been at this parenting thing for almost seven years now, and the traumas are still lingering and debilitating. Much of what Stafford writes about in her piece resonates with me. I feel incredibly burdened by my roles as teacher, father, husband, and more, and as she puts it, I tend to fall “apart behind closed doors in the company of the people who [mean] the most to me.” I can’t freak out at a student or my boss or a stranger in the supermarket who cuts me off in the pasta aisle–at least not in the same way that I let myself freak out at my kids. Why do I let the people I love most suffer the brunt of my rage?
To put this in context, I am a serious yeller. We were visiting friends out of state a few years ago, and our two kids were being fairly well behaved while her son kept running over to the hot oven and yanking open the door. She didn’t yell at him, and kept telling him that that was very dangerous, but he kept right on doing it. She finally turned to us and asked, “How do you get your kids not to do stuff like this?” My husband and I both looked at each other and said, “We usually yell at the kids until they cry so that they know we’re serious.”
Of course I tend to yell even when there’s no immediate peril of death. I find myself approaching my kids with the logic of a thirty-something-year-old man, which is clearly insane. I grew up with a similarly minded father, a computer engineer who I remember clearly getting so frustrated with the time it was taking me to bait my hook when I went fishing with him as a kid that he ended up taking it away and spending the day fishing with two rods while I made little rock harbors in the shallow water a few feet away. We got along fine, just as long as I was doing what logically made sense to him. And this is the case with my own kids.
We all know that logic isn’t a parent’s best friend. When my daughter was only a few weeks old and only sleeping 2-3 hours at a time, my husband and I took turns with the middle-of-the-night feedings. When she woke screaming, and I, sleep-walking my way through the routine, would give her bottle and change her diaper. When these two things failed to calm her, I would rouse from my half-eyed stupor and yell, “What do you want? I’ve changed you and fed you! What else is there?” My husband would then come in and silently take the infant from my arms and guide me back to bed.
Over the two years we were potty training our son, I lost it almost daily. One time I was home alone with the kids. My older daughter was in the shower, and I had put my three- or four-year-old son on the potty. He sat there for a few minutes while I passed bathing accoutrements back and forth to my daughter, constantly looking at him and smiling, “Is it coming out yet? Put the poop in the potty and Daddy will be so proud!” He would sit there really trying for fifteen minutes or so, and then say, “I don’t have to go.” I’d get him off the potty, dress him, and then the minute I turned my back on him to towel off my daughter, I smelled it. I turned to him, and saw the lump in his pants. My blood began to boil as I turned up the volume: “You were just on the potty two minutes ago! You said you didn’t have to go! Why did you poop in your pants? Do you like sitting in poop? What is wrong with you?” He started crying of course, and then I would console him and apologize for exploding, as always explaining why I was frustrated, and then I noticed the polite cocktail conversation floating up from my neighbor’s yard to my son’s open window. I could clearly hear the conversation between my neighbors and a few of their visiting friends starting up again after a definite lull, a lull clearly caused by me screaming about poop. I can’t imagine the things my neighbors have heard me scream over the past few years.
This trajectory of events has become so engrained in our family that it’s become somewhat normalized for my kids. One night at dinner, the kids were playing the “When I Was a Baby…” game. My son said, “When I was a baby, I pooped in my diaper.” Without missing a beat, my daughter said, “And then Daddy yelled at you?” We all laughed because she said it not out of fear but with a sardonic grin that suggested wisdom beyond her years. She seemed to know how ridiculous our dramas had become, and it’s true that when we’re not in the throes of emotional upheaval that we get along fabulously, and we even have pretty healthy talks about how Daddy needs to work on how he expresses his feelings.
Now that my son is nearly six years old and his stubborn streak is proving to be a personality trait rather than a phase, the two of us find ourselves enmeshed in this nightly drama that results in my blood pressure spiking and him running crying from the room. And it’s typically over the little things. He’s chewing with his mouth open at the dinner table. He’s not cleaning up his Legos quickly enough. He doesn’t believe me when I say that tomorrow is Saturday. All these little things that send me over the edge.
I know my own emotional pathology is at play here. I am significantly self-conscious about my parenting abilities, which is due to a variety of factors: the lingering effects of the dysfunction in my own household growing up, societal rhetoric about whether or not I should be allowed to have children at all as a gay man, the way we treat dads differently than moms, the persistent questions about the healthy development of children in trans-racial adoptions. As with most parents, I want my kids to be model children when they leave this house, and that’s exaggerated by the ludicrous notion some people will always have that these kids shouldn’t be in my care.
Still, I need to work on myself. I’m not sure I’m up for the challenge of a 2014 with no yelling. In fact, here on January 3, I’ve already lost the challenge–twice–but I am willing to try harder. My husband and I had a good talk yesterday about the ways in which we communicate with our son, and we’ve got a few new strategies that might help out. Principally though, I need to back off. Right now, we’re able to bounce back fairly quickly from these screaming matches, but I know in a few years that won’t be the case. I’ll work it out with the help of my husband and a good therapist, and with any luck there will be a little less for my neighbors to listen to when we open the windows this spring.