My kid rocks. She’s a smart second-grader who loves to read and play and all that stuff. She loves us. She tells us that every night. Here’s the thing: She’s a total space case. She can’t do ANYTHING without my wife and I telling her to do it a half dozen times. So every day, I tell her to get her socks and shoes on, eat breakfast, brush her teeth. And every single thing I ask her to do takes four to five asks. Every time I need her to do something, I end up yelling. How can I not? “Get your shoes on! How many times do I have to tell you! Every day!” You know what I mean? Once I yell, she does it and we’re off. It doesn’t seem to bug her, and so it doesn’t bug me. But the other day she said, “Dad, you’re mean.” “But you aren’t getting ready the first time I ask!” I said. She seemed to agree with me. But still, the “mean” stuck with me. Am I a mean dad? Or, worse, am I doing harm to her?
Yelling in Pennsylvania
Kids — even second graders — are rarely in the business of malicious intent, although it might seem that way from an adult perspective. Kids can sometimes seem like assholes. They’re not trying to be. And sometimes parents seek out behavioral explanations for parenting pain points before ruling out the physical explanations. So, I’ll ask you in all seriousness: have you checked her hearing? There is, in fact, a small chance that the reason she doesn’t respond is because she really is having difficulty hearing you. It may be worth it to address her capability first. That said, if her hearing is sound, I suspect that you and your kid have simply slipped into a convenient pattern of behavior. And you’ll have to break that pattern before building a new one.
Let’s soothe your conscience real quick. Are you a mean dad? No. Are you doing harm to your daughter? Probably not. It doesn’t sound like you’re being abusive or unduly angry. After all, your yelling appears to be isolated to very specific and frustrating circumstances. That’s not to say that your yelling is totally benign. Kids learn by watching their parents. That’s how they figure out how to be big people in the big world. That means you’re essentially teaching your daughter that the only way to resolve difficult situations is to raise your voice. That could come back to haunt you if she internalizes that belief and carries it into her teen years. Kids who are yelled out commonly grow up to be kids who yell back.
So yeah, let’s talk about how to stop the yelling. Luckily, it’s not a terribly complicated fix. However, it is a process and will take time, patience and commitment. Ready? Okay then.
In situations like these, I look to the Kazdin Method, created by Dr. Larry Kazdin of the Yale Parenting Center. The premise of his method is pretty simple: replace the behavior you don’t want to see from your daughter by encouraging the behavior you do want to see. Because as annoying as your daughter’s behavior is, it works. She’s come to understand that the signal to actually do what you ask is when you get loud. To change that, you’ll need to practice the behavior you actually want to see.
Approach it as you would training for a sport. You’re the coach and she’s the player and it’s time to run drills. First thing you need to do is be very specific about what you want to see. Start with one thing. “Do what I say the first time I say it” is too big. Be very specific. Start with toothbrushing, or dressing or putting on shoes. Pick one of those things. Tell her exactly what you’re looking for and what you’re going to practice. Explain it in your most loving, happy and excited voice. Impress upon her that this is fun! It’ll make mornings easier!
When you start practicing, you’ll need to make your request in a bright and encouraging way. Get down on her level and make sure she sees you. Say please, even. (Remeber you’re modeling behavior here). Then when your daughter does as you ask, the first time, make it a huge deal. She just scored a goal! She just won the race! Huzzah! Repeat this process over and over. Eventually, the response you’re looking for will become a habit and you can move on to teeth brushing or getting dressed and repeat.
Of course, it may not be as easy as all that. If she’s reticent, then you may need to break the task down even further. You may even have to help. But remember your goal is to see her independent response to your request without yelling. Importantly, that means you will have to stop yelling. You’ll also have to work on being much more positive about your requests. Will it feel forced? Maybe, for a while. But in the same way you’re training your daughter, you’re training yourself.
Here’s something super important to remember: You need to make sure that your partner is on board with this plan too. Both parents need to be engaged in the same training, or else it’s going to go off the rails. So there will need to be some discussion there. This is a team effort.
The secret of all of this is that many of the issues parents are looking to solve can be solved by modifying their own behavior. In fact, training your daughter is just a small part of what’s going on here. The larger piece is that you are training yourself how to communicate and react to your daughter too. After all, your relationship is a transaction of requests and emotions that need to be aligned to a common goal. At some point, your daughter will learn that it feels better and more uplifting to receive wild praise for putting her shoes on the first time you ask. And you’ll learn that patience and praise fells far better than losing your shit.