I was raised in a household of yellers. Not hitters, not abusers, not bad people — just yellers. We’re a family of loud, brash, fun-loving people who like to say what’s on their mind. Whoever says it loudest usually wins. The volume in my house has two modes: moderately high and hear you from half a mile away. You get the picture.
Now, sometimes things get heated. When they do, thanks to our volume, you might say we yell. When there’s a fight, we’re yellers. When we’re sick of our toddler throwing a rock at a kid at the playground or our baby crying for hours straight, we tend to yell. In the first case, it’s to discipline like yelling “Just what do you think you’re doing!” In the second it’s out of exasperation like “Would you please go to freaking bed!”
There’s always love and we never yell with malice. I have to say that because my mother-in-law, who comes from a polite, quiet family doesn’t get it and thinks we’re doing the kids harm. If we’re doing the kids harm, count me harmed beyond repair. There’s just no way. Are you with me?
Yelling in Yonkers
Here’s the thing that got me about your request for validation. You state in your letter that you yell at your baby. And maybe you didn’t realize what you were laying down here, but I’d like you to take a quick moment of reflection.
Imagine for a moment that you come upon a scene where a grown man is yelling at a baby. You don’t have any context. All you see is a grown-ass man, who is yelling at a baby. Imagine this happening in a food court. Imagine it happening in a parking lot. Imagine the dude just stops to yell into a stroller while he’s walking down the street. What do you think your reaction would be?
Would you think to yourself: “That looks like an incredibly reasonable adult who is capable of managing his emotions in an appropriate way,” or would find the whole thing troubling and ludicrous?
My guess is that you’d find it troubling and ludicrous and you’d be right because it is. Babies do not have the cognitive ability to understand verbal communication. They are, however, empathetic enough to sense distress. So when they hear yelling, they don’t know why the yelling is happening, but they are very aware that something is wrong. They can feel your frustration. They cannot understand why you are frustrated. So, they get flooded with all the nasty stress hormones but there’s no resolution for you, just more crying and more yelling.
That’s a problem because it renders your yelling functionally useless. It’s not communication, and what’s more, it never becomes communication.
You said yourself that in your family, the loudest wins. You might as well settle disagreements with wrestling matches. Because clearly your arguments aren’t settled by thoughtful reason about what’s best for all parties, but rather who has the most lung power.
But something important is revealed in the story about your family. You admit that you’re a yeller because you come from a family of yellers. You’re explicitly stating that it’s a learned behavior. And even if it’s not — even if there is a yelling gene passed down through generations making it impossible for you to communicate frustration in any other way — the fact is that you revel in the yelling. In fact, you’ve disproved your own claim that yelling hasn’t damaged you because you are yelling at a baby.
The good news is that what is learned can be unlearned with a little will and patience. Unfortunately, I am a bit worried that you lack those qualities. So let me try to inspire you, or at least scare you straight.
Yellers raise yellers. While the consequences of your yelling now might be little more than startled, crying kids, your child will grow up. Consider your quality of life when your frustrated yells are returned with even more frustration by a hormonally unhinged teenager. You’re looking at a life of continuous escalating tensions where everyone can’t help but be heard, but nobody is understood.
You claim there is always love when you yell, and I have no doubt that you feel love for your children. But yelling and love are not particularly compatible — unless you’re telling someone you love them over large distances. I’m even willing to believe that you don’t feel any particular malice when you yell. But your children probably can’t tell the difference between a malicious yell, a frustrated yell, or a sad yell. They see your face change. They feel their ears hurt. They get frightened.
Do me a favor. Go into your bathroom (preferably when you have a moment alone), stand in front of your mirror, and yell. Pay attention to what happens to your face. Because even if you’re not yelling at yourself in anger, your face will look angry. It’s just how faces work. That’s the face your child sees. It’s a face they will remember, regardless of how much love you felt was behind it.
This is all to say, I’m not with you.
Look. Are there reasonable times to yell? Absolutely. In situations where you need to get your kid’s attention so they aren’t harmed or harm someone else, you should open up those lungs and let the dad voice loose. But unless you live a particularly dangerous life, yelling should be a rarity.
I’m also not saying there’s not a place for being loud and boisterous. My wife has three loud boisterous sisters. When they get together and start chatting they become increasingly loud and high pitched. But when they get loud they are usually laughing and having a good time. That’s just good bonding. There’s nothing wrong with being loud and happy. But that’s not what you’re describing.
I want to encourage you to give up the yelling habit. There are better ways to deal with frustration, and most of them riff off a technique of taking a few deep, steadying breaths. Give yourself enough space and you may start to see how deeply unhelpful yelling is.