Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Month Without Yelling. Then: Yelling.

I lasted all of January, which surprised the hell out of me frankly. Some kind of weird determined energy possessed me this first month of Two-Aught-Fourteen. I created - and have actually kept up with - a weekly list of chores that has the house in pretty decent shape. The yoga studio is seeing my shadow twice a week, and I’ve added a little cardio here and there. Whatever the cause, it was a month of improvement and positive energy. And no yelling, until that last day.

It snuck up on me. There were toys EVERYWHERE, as usual. Toys and pajamas and books and shoes and jackets and construction paper and little plastic IKEA snack bowls everywhere. I had a full list of chores plus dinner to prepare, so I asked the kids to pick up one room, any room, while I cooked. Fifteen minutes later there is laughter and then screaming but not a thing picked up. I remind them more firmly that they need to clean up before dinner. Ten minutes go by and again nothing is done. This time they whine. “It’s too haaaaaaard,” they say. “You need to help us. It’s not faaaaaaaaair.”

And I lost it. A full-on screaming tirade. An angry list of all the things I do for them, have been doing on my own all day, still have to do, and they need me to pick up their toys? Pick them up into a garbage bag is all I’m going to do! I screamed at them to put their hands on something, and put it away. Simple as that. Put your hand on something, and put it away. I shouldn’t have to stand here and tell you what to do. I don’t have the energy to direct your every move. I was loud, angry and relentless.

And the worst part: It worked. They hopped right to the task of picking up. It’s the terrible truth of parenting. Yelling works.

But at what price? Adele was cleaning through tears. Lucas had fear in his eyes, which later settled into a hard, strange look of bitterness. They were doing as I demanded, but it pushed us apart. Just a bit, but year after year of yelling will move things in only one direction - away.

Another thing about yelling is that you need to keep doing it. It’s a short-term solution. I don’t want to have to scream uncontrollably every time I want something done around here. The better way is to guide the kids to make smart choices and let them deal with the consequences - good or bad - of their actions. This is a much, much harder way. It is a long, slow lesson. The dividends are paid over a lifetime. They are of little help right now as I’m stepping on raisins, tripping on the Candyland box.

The mysterious energy that carried me through January is gone. Every day is a struggle now, and the yelling is creeping back. The change in Lucas has been sobering, though. He calms himself down instead of exploding. He parrots my parent-speak: “I was upset, but I’m turning it around and trying another way.” After the explosion that ended my month-long streak, I told the kids to finish up on their own while I calmed down in the other room. After a few minutes, Lucas came up and put his hand on my shoulder. “You’re doing a very nice job of staying calm. I’m very proud of you. Good for you.”

Besides showing me how patronizing I sound, and also finding a way to sneak out of cleaning (I noticed that right away), Lucas showed me that all this is sinking in for him. Today the floor is still a tangle of socks and stuffed animals and legos, but we have a future than doesn’t require constant anger. February hasn’t been easy, but Lucas is working with me. Even as we’re both frustrated and tempers flare, we have a place to bring it back to. I can say “I shouldn’t have yelled. Let’s try this another way.” He can say, “I’m very mad and I can’t stop screaming, but I want a hug.” Things are still rough, but we’re moving closer, not apart. Even with my increasing slip-ups, we’re making this work.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Lessons from a Week Without Yelling

Day 8

Defying my own meager expectations I have managed to go an entire week without yelling, though I've come close nearly every day. In the noble spirit of science - or to distract myself from the truth of how I’m barley pulling this off - I have documented the circumstances for future analysis.

Scenario #1
I am reading an article on my phone. Perhaps it is about how systematic racism in mortgage lending created the urban ghetto. Perhaps it is a slideshow featuring cats. Lucas whines “MaaaaaaaMAAAAA! You’re not listening to me! I want a cookie noooooooow!”

Reaction: I start to snap at him in anger, but catch myself. I remind him that interrupters don’t get a response. He might try getting my attention with a polite “excuse me” before making an outrageous and doomed request.

Lesson: Don’t get distracted by devices in the middle of the kitchen. Take time away to catch up on emails or sociopolitical topics or cat memes.

Scenario #2
The kids are fighting about the need for universal healthcare or a toy or something. Adele is wailing and Lucas is screaming. My calm words of wisdom go unheard.

Reaction: I raise my voice in an attempt to overcome the din. My blood boils as my voice gets louder and louder with no effect. I avoid true yelling, but get that scary-calm booming tone and say “BOTH OF YOU. STOP. TALKING. NOW!”

Lesson: I need to find a way to diffuse out-of-control kid tantrums. They will keep happening, and without a noise-cancelling plan I will slip back right into my old yelling ways.

Scenario #3
It is 9:30pm on a school night. They kids have been in bed over a hour but are still up. And loud. We’ve gone in several times to quiet them with no success.

Reaction: I speak to them in a very harsh tone. It’s not yelling, but it’s pretty close. The words are threatening and mean, and I feel like crap afterward.

Lesson: When I can’t think of a way to calmly address the kids’ behavior, I get frustrated very quickly. I can’t back down and a battle of wills begins. That has to change if I’m going to ever put yelling behind me.
~ ~ ~

So it really comes down to figuring out in advance how to to handle recurring situations. I also need a way to back down from tense situations without feeling I am giving up. It helps to view these fights as just practice. The real work happens in the downtime.

We also had one wonderful example of that utilitarian shouting I defined in my earlier post. I glanced outside to see Lucas thrust a flaming marshmallow in his friend’s face, then chase her around with it as she fled in terror. A perfect occasion when shouting was called for. He stopped at once, though upon realizing the marshmallow was being taken away pitched a gigantic fit. It took a fair amount of patience not to go OFF on him for being less concerned about maiming his friend than losing his third jumbo marshmallow of the evening. Instead I sent him to his room until we both calmed down, and we talked about why what he did was a really bad idea. Yeah, it was a good week.

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Year Without Yelling: Let's get this party started

Days 1 & 2

The early days of 2014 have been conflict-free in the best possible way. I awoke at 10am on New Year’s Day to a house filled with friends, hot coffee already brewed and fresh crepes on the breakfast table. Real life and its troubles were on holiday. I nearly yelled once, snapping a sharp “Lucas!” as he tormented his sister, but caught myself and we talked instead. House guests left, different house guests arrived. There is nothing like an audience to keep me on my best behavior.

Day 2 was a blur of good food, endless laughter and spirit tasting at an awesome distillery. Not a bad way to keep frustration at bay. Dropping the kids off with my mother for an overnight stay also helped quite a bit. These few days are lived in suspended reality. Though my dear friends have left and I pick up my children in few hours, we’re sliding into a relaxing plan-free weekend. My real work begins on Monday, the return to the comforting and crushing demands of routine. On school days the clock must be obeyed. The kids, sensing this urgency, will become slow-moving boneless blobs incapable of brushing teeth or dressing themselves while insisting I CAN DO IT MYSELF! and then starting up a game of Candyland and spilling something sticky.

Deep breath. Deep breath. Happy place.

A friend shared a HuffPost article today - "The Important Thing About Yelling"  - and it pretty much addresses exactly why I have decided to give up my screaming fits. I tend to make light of my parenting struggles, but this no-yelling resolution is born from a very deep fear that the author of this piece captures perfectly. If I keep yelling I am going to damage my relationship with my family. I will certainly mess up a lot this year, but I love the people in my life too much to give up. I may need the support of friends and perhaps this heavenly bottle of Terroir Gin I purchased, but I can do this.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Year Without Yelling

2014. Resolutions and new beginnings and all that. I don't typically bother with resolutions. Major life changes undertaken after weeks of holiday exhaustion and starting with a hangover aren’t likely to stick. But here I am, committing publicly to a doomed resolution: I will go a year without yelling.

If you know me you will laugh. I yell all the time. I come from a family of yellers. But as my kids get older I hear the anger reflected back in their small, sweet voices. I hear how it sounds. And I want it to stop.

I was struck recently by this simple thought: Nothing is improved by yelling at someone. Yelling makes everything worse. Tempers flare, and they subside leaving guilt and hurt.

I’m not talking about shouting. “Look out! A car is coming!” has solid utility. I’m also not referring to the sublime cathartic scream, which combined with a well-crafted string of profanities can relieve tension after slicing your finger instead of a carrot or sloshing red wine on your white carpet. No, these are merely the raising of voice. I’m talking about using loud angry words to address someone else. It never helps. Never. And I’m going to learn to stop.

“Learn to” is a key part of this little experiment. I’m not undertaking some vow and expecting my strong will (ha!) to enforce it. I’m going to look at the situations that lead me to lose my cool and figure out what needs to change. Food, sleep, boredom. Unrealistic expectations. Defensiveness. Overcommitment.

A lot to take on. Doomed to failure, but as the title of this blog reminds me, failure is a lot more fun.