Many parenting experts are of the opinion that raising your voice to discipline a child is just as bad as raising your hand. They’re wrong.
Discipline is easily the most important part of parenting, but the question of how to instil it has become increasingly complex.
Our parents’ generation, and generations before them, simply used spanking, but corporal punishment has since become widely condemned. Lately, though, even yelling has come under fire as parenting experts claim verbal discipline is as bad as spanking. Even seemingly innocuous time-outs are decried by some pundits.
So what’s a parent to do?
Well, 50 per cent of Canadian parents do still spank, down from 90 per cent a generation ago. Legal in Canada under Section 43 of the criminal code, spanking was actually upheld in a 2004 Supreme Court challenge. (However, the judgement was also amended to outlaw spanking using anything but a hand and/or involving children under two or over 12.)
Some experts like John Fletcher, the editor-in-chief of the prestigious Canadian Medical Association Journal, want it outlawed altogether. “While Section 43 stands, it is a constant excuse for parents to cling to an ineffective method of child discipline when better approaches are available,” he wrote in a 2012 editorial. “It is time for Canada to remove this anachronistic excuse for poor parenting from the statute book.”
I’m not entirely sold on the studies that claim spanking makes children aggressive. It’s possible that the results are skewed because aggressive children are the ones more likely to get spanked, making it something of a chicken-and-egg scenario. Not to mention the fact that, in the past, almost everyone got spanked, including myself, and not everyone over the age of 30 is aggressive. I recall being spanked once when I was 4 or 5 because I lied about doing something bad, not because of the bad thing I did (which, by the way, was to hammer a bunch of holes in the upstairs hallway wall and then, when discovered with hammer still in hand, deny I had anything to do with it). The point the spanking was intended to impart hit home both figuratively and literally.
That said, I’ve never spanked my four-year-old son and can’t imagine any conceivable instance where I might. I abhor the idea of hitting him and it makes no sense to try and solve a problem with violence when I’m teaching him never to do that.
But now that parents have taken to raising their voices rather than their hands, the anti-spanking argument has expanded to yelling by playing off parental guilt.
“Yelling is the new spanking,” claimed Amy McCready, a “recovering yeller” and founder of Positive Parenting Solutions. “I have never met a parent who enjoys yelling, and I’m overwhelmed by the level of guilt that parents feel and how distressing it is for their day-in and day-out parenting life.”
Dr. Phil argues, “It stops communication, that’s the problem. As soon as you start yelling, they just kind of go into shutdown.”
A study released in January claimed “eight-year-olds whose parents disciplined them by yelling have less satisfying relationships with romantic partners and spouses at age 23.” That followed a 2013 study of middle-school students that found “harsh verbal discipline” led to depression and behavioural problems. (Notably, the study doesn’t differentiate between “yelling and shouting” and “insulting and using words to humiliate.”)
Center for Effective Discipline director Deborah Sendek told the Washington Post that, “When people raise their voices, the message typically isn’t, ‘Wow, I love you, you’re a great child.’ You’re usually saying something negative, and ripping down their self-esteem.” She added that your children won’t remember what you said, only how upsetting being yelled at was. “It’s a physiological response. When someone yells, your system goes on hyper-alert.”
Exactly—and that’s why yelling works.
To be clear, there’s no excuse for ever insulting or demeaning your child at any decibel level. But, in my experience, yelling can be effective, so long as it’s almost never used.
My son is generally very well-behaved, but he’s four and occasionally does things requiring an amplified response. Yelling inevitably makes him burst into tears because it happens so rarely. But it makes it immediately clear that what he did was bad in a way that went beyond normalcy. What follows is comfort from me, an apology from him, and a joint discussion about why what he did was wrong and how to avoid it in the future.
Yelling is a shock tactic, though, and, if employed too often, will completely lose its impact and efficacy. So the best way to maintain discipline is to reduce the likelihood of misbehaviour in the first place.
Teaching children the importance of saying “sorry,” explaining what they’re sorry for, and then accepting their apology will make them more respectful of others and better able to deal with personal affronts.
Instilling the importance of being careful can reduce conflicts over safety issues and employing countdowns can be an effective means of dealing with disobedient delays. (The latter can occasionally make our son over-anxious, in which case we try counting down from, say, 100 rather than 10, which still gets him moving but without any pressure.)
We also play to his self-perception as a big kid—not a baby—to nudge him back on track. And sometimes, like this morning, we let just him have seaweed and cashews for breakfast because he really wants them and it’s not worth a blow-up.
Though we haven’t yet experimented with timeouts, I certainly don’t get arguments like that of Dr. Laura Markham, who claims timeouts are “punishment by banishment and humiliation.” (Markam, by the way, doesn’t believe in any form of punishment or consequences to reduce bad behaviour, so take that as you will.)
We also have a zero tolerance for whining, which is a primary spark of parent-child conflicts. When it happens, we calmly ask our son, “Does whining get you what you want?“ He replies, “no,” and then eventually asks again in a normal tone of voice and either gets it or doesn’t. Many disciplinary issues can similarly be dealt with in a calm, rational discussion. (Meltdowns cannot, of course, but they also can’t be ended with yelling, as the child is too emotionally distraught for it to have any effect. Better to get them to take a few deep breaths, offer hugs, and help them get their emotions back in check.)
But whining and meltdowns are annoying and common, while rare events like touching a hot stove, darting into the street, hitting another kid, lying, or willful disobedience must be dealt with at a higher intensity level.
Kids will always misbehave because they’re kids and they don’t know better. It’s up to us to teach them how to behave, and there are many tools at our disposal, the very last of which is yelling. It’s not an enjoyable one, and mustn’t be abused or employed in anger or frustration. (You’re the grown-up, act like it.) But in our post-spanking age, it also shouldn’t be totally removed from the toolbox.