Speak softly and carry a big heart

Six months and one day ago, as we rang in the New Year, my resolution was to refrain from raising my voice at my boys.

I gave it my best effort.

I had almost forgotten about it until two days ago when my oldest son asked me, “Dad, have you ever yelled at me?”

“Of course,” I said, trying remember the last time I actually had used volume to make a point, but I came up cold.

I really don’t remember the last time.

The resolution to speak softly has become a new habit and now, having broken the old habit of shouting, here’s what I’ve discovered.

Yelling discourages dialog. It says, “I’m louder. I’m superior. I win. The end.”

Not yelling encourages listening. Now when I speak in corrective terms, my kids listen carefully. If I tell them quietly but clearly, “if you don’t go up stairs right now and clean your room, I’m going to come up with a trash bag and clean it myself,” they know I mean it.

Yelling gives us a false assumption that we’ve actually punished. After spouting off an angry pitch at our kids, so often we take no further action toward correcting their behavior. When children are little, yelling is terrifying to them. It is enough to get them moving. But as they get older, they get desensitized to it. The problem is, we keep doing it thinking it is still effective.

Yelling is knee jerk. It’s from the place of anger, the place of irrational reaction.

Not yelling is controlled. It’s from the place of caring, the place of rational response.

Personally, I feel a lot less stress when I don’t yell. When the boys do something that would otherwise make my blood boil, I find myself thinking calmly in the gap between emotion and reaction, and asking “what is the most effective way to deal with this?”

And then I apply it.

If it doesn’t work, I try something else. But I don’t get irrational.

Yelling, I have discovered, is one of those psycho-somatic things … like smiling. If you do it, the corresponding emotion soon follows.  So even if I wasn’t mad, all it took was brief shouting session to get me there.

I know many parents who are semi-to-staunchly authoritarian. Some might think that my newer softer tone makes me a push over.

Some might even say it makes me a weak father figure.

But I would offer that any action born from anger is not controlled – and that in fact, it takes a great deal of strength to restrain our actions – especially when we are angry.

Comparatively, acting on impulse seems weak.

I’m happy I broke the yelling habit. In doing so, I’m setting a better example for my boys.

Over time, they too will understand what I now do: we don’t have to use a loud voice to make a strong point.

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4 Responses to “Speak softly and carry a big heart”

  1. Angella Says:

    Great advice!! Working with delinquent youth has taught me this lesson. Saying something sternly and following up with action is much better than yelling. I will admit though that at times I get so frustrated with some of these youth that I scream, but only to myself now…lol 🙂

    • Luke Pinneo Says:

      @ Angella – Sounds like you’ve got it mastered! It’s all about trying to widen the gap between feeling the anger, and acting out because of it.

  2. Dana Says:

    I want to apply this principle to my life/actions with my children so badly. I try. But cannot seem to keep it up for long. It takes a stronger person than I. 😦
    I’m applauding you your heroic effort and clearly your calm demeanor with your kids. It will send good ripples through your future generations.

    • Luke Pinneo Says:

      Dana – I can say without doubt, it’s tough. But with any tough goal, it takes practice and patience. (patience not only with the child, but more with ourselves) The key is perspective on the practice. It’s not so much a product, as it is a process. Looking back (and of course I can’t say it was a 100% yelling-free year) I realize that rather than making a decision to stop yelling, I was making a decision to participate in the process of doing so. And with any process, we must factor in time and repetition. It’s the cultivation of a calm mind – again – a process, not a product.

      And the human mind, once calmed and cultivated, is a very powerful tool.

      As I tell my sons, “A wild mind is a cruel master. A calm mind is a loyal servant.”

      To practice the calm mind is to recognize that all forms of violence, to include uncontrollable or impulsive yelling, is triggered by the angry mind. We can very quickly and easily learn to recognize the angry mind. See it arising in ourselves, watch it come and go – and learn to not react to it. Yelling is simply our reaction to the angry mind. Spanking is the next reaction. Thankfully, sot parents have the ability to stop themselves at yelling and spanking. But some do not. And here abuse, both physical and verbal, ensues. We can’t stop ourselves from experiencing anger ‘in the heat of the moment’ as you say. But we can learn to widen the gap between our experience of the anger, and our reaction to it. Like all things, the angry mind in ‘the heat of the moment’ is a fleeting state of mind. (though we sometimes wrongfully and painfully choose to hold onto it) But by learning to watch it, we see it arise, we see it surface, we see it reach its peak and then fade – and then it’s gone. What we may find then, as we learn to widen the gap between the feeling and the reaction, is that if we can wait long enough without reacting, the feeling will come and go, and the urge to act out will go with it.

      With children, we often feel that we MUST respond to them. But often, no response is the appropriate response. A mother’s unusual silence is remarkably shocking to a child who has learned from a very young age that his mother’s predicable shouting is her reaction to his “misbehaving.” He expects it – and in some case even welcomes it as sign that life is as stable as he can predict. Have you ever noticed how a child of two or three or four enjoy playing the same game over and over, each day repeating the same steps and events almost as if it were scripted? This is how children learn to feel safe. Through this repetitive play, they come to feel that the wild world in which they live is predicable and within their control.

      So if we have conditioned our children to know that when they misbehave we will yell at them, we invite them into a patten of: them misbehaving, us yelling, rinse, repeat. Sound familiar?

      So adding an abrupt silence into this dynamic really has a profound impact – both on them and us. For them it’s arresting. And the silence gives them room to think. Children are intelligent. Silence is a wonderful way for this intelligence to manifest itself. Have you ever snuck up on a child, to watch them quietly playing by him or herself? The wonderful things that pour from their mouths during this play are astonishing. By not yelling, we give them a chance to use this intelligence during what we can describe as ” correction moments.”

      Plus, for us, yelling, like any nervous habit, triggers more nervousness with in us. If we remove the yelling, (the cause) we remove the nervousness (the effect).

      And we too have a deep intelligence, which is almost completely lost to us when we are angry or nervous. So in removing the yelling habit, which removes the nervousness habit, we gain access to this intelligence. And it’s here, that we can really begin to find novel solutions that we can apply to the challenges and conflicts in our homes.

      And speaking of habits – yelling or not yelling – both are simple, garden-variety habits. I can’t say I broke the yelling habit, really. We don’t break habits per se. But we do replace them. (hopefully with habits that cause us peace and happiness) Like any habit (take smoking for example) at first, it must be forced, until it becomes, well, habitual and even necessary for our happiness.

      So, like smoking, the habit of yelling is strong and hard to “break.” Over time, it has formed. We didn’t always yell at them, like when they were infants for example. But over time, we have learned to use yelling naturally – almost effortlessly. But we recognize it is not good for us, our children and our homes. So, we can learn – through a process – to replace the habit of yelling with the habit of being calm, until being calm becomes a natural, even necessary reaction for us.

      It just take practice – and patience with ourselves.

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