Why I Scream at Your Grandchildren

Why do parents scream at their kids so much today? The author of a humorous new book has the answers.

By Amy Wilson

All four of my children's grandparents live in the same town, two hours away. At the end of one recent weekend visit, my 5- and 7-year-old sons were "scrapping" on the floor of Ya Ya's living room while I rushed about packing the car. (How is it that a 48-hour trip with three children requires 18 suitcases?) My sons' wrestling matches start out genially enough, but never end well, and on each of my trips past them up and down the stairs, I told them to cut it out. They ignored me, of course, and as I finally shut the tailgate of the minivan out in the driveway, I heard my 5-year-old screeching as if his eyes had been put out. I rushed back into the living room to find both boys crying, both faces scratched, both screaming that the other one had started it.

And then, I confess: I screamed louder than the two of them put together. I screeched that they never listened to me, that I was sick and tired of it, and that if they ever fought again, ever, all birthday parties would be cancelled for the rest of their lives. I then turned to stomp out of the room, and that's when I saw my mother- and father-in-law, standing stunned in the kitchen doorway, trying not to appear overly horrified at the banshee who married their only son.

It's true: I am a yeller. Not all day. Not every day. But sometimes, when the school bus is coming in three minutes and my kids don't have their shoes on — and then claim they don't even know where their shoes are — I have been known to take it up a few decibels. I don't say anything too horrible, but I do say it very loudly. Of course, I feel really badly afterward and apologize, but I realize that is not really as good as not yelling in the first place. Believe me, my guilty conscience doesn't let me forget that for a minute.

A Generation of Screamers?

This may not make my in-laws feel any better, but according to a New York Times article, there are a lot of other mothers like me out there. I will admit there's an unfair double standard at work here: If I ever heard my parents or in-laws hollering at my kids like that, I would be one bad mama bear. But I would also argue that my kids' grandparents never would yell at them like that, since they — like most grandparents I know — think their grandchildren are perfect and can do no wrong. We parents tend to have a more nuanced perspective.

In defense of my kind — parents who sometimes utterly lose it with your precious, innocent angels — I would like to offer a few explanations:

• We can't hit.

My generation of parents cannot discipline with a mere bug of the eyes, as yours could. Why? Because spanking has been removed from the modern parent's bag of tricks. You may or may not agree with this newfangled notion, but the prevailing wisdom of today's parenting authorities is that physical discipline is as warping as it is ineffective. (I do sometimes wonder if they're lying to us about the "ineffective" part.) I had a few spankings in my day, and each remains crystal-clear in my memory. The other 98 percent of the time, a mere raised eyebrow from either parent was warning enough for me to clean up my act, or else a good hiney-hiding was a distinct possibility. Today, if I tried raising a warning eyebrow at my kids, they'd just think I had a tic or something.

• They're not so shy.

The time-honored aphorism that "children should be seen and not heard" seems to have similarly gone the way of the rotary-dial phone. Back when I was a kid, we knew we were supposed to behave ourselves in grown-up places; it was an ironclad societal rule. I would no sooner have thrown a tantrum in church than pulled my pants down. These days, my kids pick up inventive examples of bratty behavior everywhere we go, and "time out" is a punishment that sometimes just does not suit the crime. (Unless you say it really, really loudly.)

• There's more to shout about.

Lastly, we have so much more to holler at our children about these days, so many more dangers lurking in the sandbox, so many games and classes and tutoring sessions to be late for. Our overplanned lives make for crankier kids — and yes, I admit it, a crankier mother.

You're right, that's totally my own doing.

You're right, I probably should do something about that.

What's that? You'll feed the kids dinner so I can take a bath?

Oh, Ya Ya. You grandparents really are the best!

Writer and actress Amy Wilson is the creator of Mother Load, a one-woman show that has been touring the United States since 2007. She is also a contributing editor to Parenting magazine, and has written for Babble.com and CNN.com. Her first book is When Did I Get Like This?: The Screamer, the Worrier, the Dinosaur-Chicken-Nugget-Buyer, and Other Mothers I Swore I'd Never Be.

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