Editor’s Note: This is an opinion piece (with a stronger tone than is typical for this site), posted with the purpose of creating a dialogue among real moms who are actually raising families in today’s culture. Please share your perspective in the comment section.
I’m one of those people who is susceptible to every form of Mother’s Guilt. If I don’t pay enough attention to my thought processes, I can easily become overwhelmed by my negative self-talk. It’s just the way I’m wired, and I know I’m not alone. The funny thing is, it’s often the mothers who care the most and are trying the hardest who make the easiest prey for Mother’s Guilt and negative self-talk. You want so badly to be the best you can be and you have such high standards for yourself and your life that you become easily discouraged when things don’t go quite as you hoped, planned, or expected. I saw a meme today (pardon it’s French) that captures this idea perfectly: “Everything is great when you don’t give a (blank).”
So I was a little (scratch that) LOT annoyed when I read about this study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh that was recently published in the Journal of Child Development. The study addresses the negative effects of parents yelling at their teenagers, saying it has the same effect as physical abuse. I could maybe swallow that depending on the type and level of yelling, but this next part just bugged the heck out of me:
Significantly, the researchers also found that “parental warmth”—i.e., the degree of love, emotional support, and affection between parents and adolescents—did not lessen the effects of the verbal discipline. The sense that parents are yelling at the child “out of love,” or “for their own good,” Wang said, does not mitigate the damage inflicted. Neither does the strength of the parent-child bond.
Even lapsing only occasionally into the use of harsh verbal discipline, said Wang, can still be harmful. “Even if you are supportive of your child, if you fly off the handle it’s still bad,” he said.
Just in case you didn’t get that, let me summarize: Even if you are a loving, supportive, and affectionate parent to your teen, the occasional yelling fit negates all that and inflicts permanent damage.
Holy schnikes! Is this guy a parent? Of a teen? Did he have parents when he was a teen? Does he not know that every single parent of a teen on the planet is going to lose it at some point? And that most of them don’t do it because they think it’s helpful, but because they are just plain frustrated and mad? Why would he do this? I don’t know, but I would bet my therapeutic bag of dark Ghiradelli chocolates hiding in my underwear drawer that this guy is not a parent, and certainly not of teenagers.
The thing is, I consider myself an extremely patient parent. Maybe even to the point of leniency or even apathy. I am extremely non-confrontational and would rather watch an episode of Honey Boo Boo than get angry and yell at one of my children. But it happens. Because that’s life as a parent. Especially the parents of teenagers. And this guy should know that. So why browbeat the poor parents of the world who are already going out of their minds trying their best to raise these maddening adolescent creatures?
Let me share with you my latest relationship destroying indiscretion. I was low on sleep because it was that time of the month and that’s when I happen to get insomnia. (Talk about being kicked while you’re down.) So it was during this unfortunate time that my middle school age son came home on the bus for the second day in a row when he was supposed to stay after school and finish a project that was already overdue. I had sent an email to his teacher making a specific request for him (which was granted), so I didn’t want him to push his luck. To make matters worse, he also forgot (for like the 157th day in a row) to borrow a cello bow from the school since the orchestra director accidentally sent his in for repairs with some of the school bows. And, of course, he had his private cello lesson that night.
So guess what happened? Mom lost it a little bit. I yelled. I was visibly angry. I drove him back to the school a little too fast. It was not one of my prouder parenting moments. But again, it happens, and in my case, not too often. And because it doesn’t happen that often, and because I have a good relationship with my son, and because I have no problem apologizing for my bad behavior, I really didn’t sweat it. Until I read this stupid study.
But you know what? The more I thought about it, the more I resolved to reject this latest guilt trip. I have enough to feel guilty about thanks to all the “experts” and opinion-ators out there constantly piping in on all the ways I am ruining my children.
I feel guilty that my children are full of toxins from the hygiene products I buy and the PCB laden dishes and toys they’ve been using their whole lives. I feel guilty for all the days I put my to-do list and my iphone over making homemade play-doh with my younger children. I feel guilty that I let my older children veg out on their phones when we should all be outside together gardening organic produce or some such thing. I feel guilty for signing all of them up for too many extracurricular activities since we should be simplifying our life and taking things slower even though the requirements for college continue to get more competitive and rigorous. (What do you want them to write on their college applications? That they enjoyed life slowly with their parents?) I feel guilty about spending too much time writing these posts every week even though it’s in the name of supporting mothers and motherhood. (Sitting here in my bathrobe at 11am…) I feel guilty about our horrible bedtime routine. I feel guilty that I don’t make my children do more of the housework when I see how much homework they have and I just want them to have some free playtime. (That whole “take life slower” directive.) I feel guilty about letting my one child who likes it eat nasty hot lunch at school a couple of days a week. I feel guilty that I’m not doing my Room Mom job very well. I feel guilty that we haven’t finished our backyard so our kids can have a fun outdoor space to play in before they go off to college (and grow that PCB-free organic produce in), and then I feel guilty because I’m probably spoiling them enough already. Why should I feel pressure to make a dream backyard for them? Can’t they just go play kick the can in the street or something? Like they did in the “good old days” before America was so first-world spoiled?
Do you see? I know this sounds crazy to some people, but other moms know EXACTLY where I’m coming from. Yes, these are first world problems, as they say, and I guess that’s my point. We have enough first world problems, don’t give us another one.
So today, I am NOT going to feel guilty that I occasionally yell at my kids when they do stupid things and I’m already in a bad mood. ESPECIALLY if I know I have a good relationship with them, and ESPECIALLY if I make sure to show them how important it is to apologize for bad (but totally normal) behavior afterward. So really, apologizing to my son and talking to him about his day while tickling his back before bed that night didn’t make up for my yelling fit at all? Really?
Sorry Dr. Wang, but that is real life in a family. I’m not saying it’s okay to yell, I’m not saying I’m proud of it, but I am saying that occasional yelling followed by love and an apology is totally normal in happy, healthy families, and it happens all the time. I think it is absolutely crazy for you to suggest that parental love cannot make up for parental mistakes. I reject that, and the guilt trip that goes along with it. So, nope. I’m not going on your guilt trip today, Dr. Wang. I’m going to take my energy and put it toward positive interactions with my kids trusting that it does, in fact, matter.
QUESTION: Do you yell at your kids occasionally when they do stupid things? Do you apologize and show love afterward? Do you think you’re doing irreparable damage to your kids through this process and feel guilty about it?
CHALLENGE: Take a day off from the guilt trip. Most of the things you worry and feel guilty about are first world problems and don’t matter as much as you think they do. Keep loving your kids with all your might and trust that everything will be okay in the end.
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