W hen looking into ways in which you can communicate with your children, being loud is probably your last resort. You don’t want to shout at your kids, but it often seems as though that’s the only way they’ll listen. Is it? I’ve learned from parents around the world that reacting in a different way makes everyone happier.
F or years, I relied on one primary parenting strategy: nagging followed by yelling. Sometimes I’d even yell to my 3-year-old, “Rosy, stop screaming!” The notion of anger-free parenting seemed a bit like the keto diet. I knew I shouldn’t eat so many carbohydrates, but it was just too hard to resist that big bowl of pasta. Doesn’t everyone yell at their kids when nobody’s looking? Turns out, they don’t. For the past few years, I’ve been studying how moms and dads around the world parent without losing their cool. I’ve visited communities from the arctic tundra to the Tanzania savanna where parents rarely—even never—yell, scold, or nag their children. These parents taught me how to discipline and motivate my daughter without resorting to anger, punishments, or bribes. I wrote about their approach in my book Hunt, Gather, Parent. The book also describes a way of raising helpful, confident kids—by cooperating with them rather than fighting with them—that parents have been using for thousands of years. So how exactly does a mom stay calm when her 8-year-old blatantly disobeys her? How does a dad keep his cool when his 3-year-old slaps him across the face?
Expect that young kids will misbehave. Expect them to be rude, bossy, and violent. Expect them to make a mess, do tasks improperly, lash out at you, and sometimes even hit you. Expect tantrums, emotional outbursts, and tears galore. Don’t take any of it personally or think you’re a bad parent. Although kids’ behavior improves as they get older, even teens have emotional outbursts and circle back to immature behavior. When we think kids should know what not to do but they still do it, that drives us crazy and then we raise our voice. To help remember that children of all ages want to be good, come up with an endearing nickname for them, such as Sweet Potato, Baby Girl, or My Love. Use the nickname often, including when your child is misbehaving, to soften your responses and your point of view. Or pretend that your child is an exchange student from another country and you’re just fascinated by their behavior. This will help you swap out your anger for curiosity.
Just because you expect your child to misbehave doesn’t mean you let them do whatever they want. You can still point out mistakes, set boundaries, and guide proper behavior—you just don’t yell. For example, if your toddler climbs onto the table at a restaurant, simply move them back into their chair and remind them, tables aren’t for climbing on. At restaurants, we sit in chairs.
Arguing or even negotiating with your child will make both of you more frustrated—and you’ll end up teaching them to argue whenever problems arise. Your kids are observing you and learning how to respond to the world by watching you as a parent. Simply recognizing that anger will make a situation worse can help you yell less often. When a person believes that anger is a useful emotion, they tend to use that emotion more frequently. But if you have experienced that anger is unproductive, you’ll be more inclined to find another way to handle the situation.
Stop arguing, bickering, and negotiating with your kids. Simply don’t do it. If you change your perspective on kids’ motivations, then arguing makes no sense. How can you convince an illogical, irrational person to be logical? If you feel anger building, be silent for a second and remind yourself: “Getting angry won’t help” or “Being angry at a child is unproductive. Learning to construct emotions is like learning any skill—the more you practice, the more expert you become. When you practice cultivating certain emotions, your brain grows new connections that make it easier to construct these emotions in the future.
Also take a few minutes each day to practice feeling compassion for your child. Look at their chubby fingers or sweet face, and remind yourself how much they love and need you. Remind yourself of a time when they were vulnerable and trying to please you. You might also keep a gratitude journal. Each day, jot down several things your child did recently to help around the house or times when they were generous and loving.
When you start to feel anger rising, you’ll be better able to swap out that negative, unproductive feeling for a more productive, positive one. Think about something in nature that inspires awe. Focus on your child’s cute little nose, and summon compassion for this irrational creature. Or remind yourself that although this kid is driving you bananas right now, they were kind to their sibling this afternoon when they needed help with their homework.