Dave Lesser doesn’t like to yell at his argumentative daughter, but sometimes it’s the only way to create understanding
I Don’t Need a Voice to Yell
“Why are you making me yell at you!?! You are HURTING daddy!!!” Yes, I actually said that. No, I didn’t mean it in the “this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you” kind of way. I had pretty much lost my voice and was being quite literal. My throat was killing me and I didn’t want to yell at my four-year-old daughter Penny, but I felt like she was giving me no choice. Writing this a couple of weeks later, I really wish I could remember why. Truth is, there have been so many battles between us lately I can’t recall which one this was.
Entering a New Phase (Never a Good Thing)
Penny has entered an oh-so-adorable argumentative phase. On one hand, I understand that it is completely healthy and normal. She’s becoming her own person and asserting her independence. Things are no longer true just because mommy and daddy say they are. (That seems to be reason enough for her to disbelieve the veracity of what she has heard.) It’s cool that she wants to discover things for herself. I truly love her adventurous spirit, strong will, and determination.
On the other hand, it’s just so friggin’ time-consuming and exasperating that I am losing my mind! My wife and I are trying to teach her to read and write and about the world around her, in general. But she can be difficult to educate because she thinks she knows everything already. “I know how to do it, daddy!!!” Yeah, ya don’t. Also, those are not the words to the song you haven’t stopped singing for the last three days. You’re driving me insane! (That’s how I respond in my mind, anyway.) She has called me a liar on numerous occasions. We discourage that word, so she indignantly asserts, often with hands on hips, that I’m “telling stories that aren’t true.” And after defending my good honor for as long as I can, while she continues to accuse me of lying, I start to strangle her (again, of course, only in my mind). But, at this point, I really just can’t take it anymore and I shout, “ENOUGH!” She gets quiet and, through clenched teeth, I explain why what I’m saying is true. I think I may even tell her that she needs to respect her elders. (Then I tell the neighborhood children to “get off my lawn!” and to “turn down their hippity hop music.”)
After an argument, Penny generally skips off like nothing happened. She’s back to her old fun-loving self. I can remain testy for hours. I’m mad at myself for yelling and letting her get under my skin. I’m mad at her for being such a pain in the ass. I’m mad because she’s suddenly so chipper and sweet. Where was that happy-go-lucky attitude five minutes ago!?! And I’m mad because I’m still mad. Get over it, already!
I’m not sure if there is a name for this phase, like there is for the “terrible twos.” There should be, dammit! I think this one might be worse. Maybe we can call it the “fightin’ fours” or the “oh, my god will you shut the f*ck up already fours.” I don’t know, I’m just spit-balling. Kids are frustrating! Ooh, maybe she’s in the “frustrating fours” right now. Whatever it is, I cannot wait for this phase to end.
Even My One-Year-Old Can’t Escape My Wrath
All parents lose it every once in a while. Even not being able to talk above a whisper didn’t prevent me from yelling at my daughter. So, yeah, I’ve definitely lost it a couple of times. Generally, if I go off it’s with the four-year-old, but I’d be “telling stories that weren’t true” if I claimed I always kept it together with my one-year-old Simon. When he’s screaming to the heavens for no discernible reason or up at 3:00 am (and just won’t go back to sleep!), I’ve been known to beg and plead with him. And every now and then, my calming yet completely ineffective “shush” turns into a desperate and agitated “please, please, PLEASE shut the f*ck up!” But what parent doesn’t curse out their infant for what comes naturally to them? (Right? Right?)
Everyone Needs a Timeout
I always try to keep my cool. Sometimes it’s just so damned hard to do! When Penny makes my blood boil, I take a few deep breaths. If she really pushes me, I actually walk away from her so I don’t say anything – or use a tone of voice – that I will regret almost immediately. Understanding that she is in the “frustrating fours” makes strategizing a little easier. I know the tell-tale signs of an impending argument and can steel myself from the aggravation that’s headed my way.
Although the method has its detractors, I am a big fan of “timeout.” If Penny is in one of “those moods” or is having some sort of tantrum, I tell her to go to her room and sit in her timeout chair. She knows that if she goes up on her own, she gets to come down when she’s ready. I let her have her favorite blanket and stuffed animal. I even look the other way if she decides to “read” one of her books or quietly play pretend in her chair. Timeout is mostly just a way for her to calm down. And it allows me to maintain my composure. It’s a little break for both of us (from each other).
Penny also knows that if she refuses to cooperate, she does not get to choose when timeout is over. If I carry her upstairs kicking and screaming, the rules are stricter with what accompanies her. And a timer is set. If the timer goes off and she is still not ready to talk things out rationally (relatively), she has to go back in that chair. This process has been known to repeat itself seemingly interminably, but that is the exception and (luckily) hasn’t happened in quite some time.
Trying to Keep Cool in the Freezer Section
At home, this is all fairly routine. I’m in my element. Penny knows where her timeout chair is and what happens when she doesn’t get in it. Being out in public throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the system and keeping cool can be tricky. Though it still happens, yelling when we’re out is pretty rare. No one wants to be “that parent.”
“Oh, look at him screaming like a lunatic with his out of control little hooligans. He just can’t handle them. They must want their mom. Tut, tut, tut.” Yeah, I can hear your judging glances. Thank you for at least not trying to help by giving me unsolicited advice. Oh, wait, you do have some words of wisdom for me. Awesome. It’s amazing how you know my children so much better than I do. Now, please go find that special place in Hell they have reserved for a-holes like you.
So when we’re out and about, I don’t really yell or scream. Not technically. But I do get that stone cold look in my eyes, my pattern of speech becomes halting and abrupt, and Penny can tell I’m pissed. I may as well be shouting and she knows it. And I hate myself just as much afterwards.
When your children are clearly misbehaving, people understand (and even appreciate) that you must discipline them accordingly. But kids can be really sneaky. They can act up in a way that only you—as their parent—even notice. Then when you get upset, about seemingly nothing, you look like a total nutjob. “I don’t know what that guy’s deal is. His daughter was just walking down the aisle and he went ballistic! I mean, he wasn’t yelling, but he was definitely doing some really angry whispering.” Little do my fellow shoppers know, I told Penny twenty-seven times in the past five minutes that she needed to stay next to me at the grocery store because—while seeking out the lowest of the low low prices and dealing with her baby brother’s fussing—I can’t always pay attention to her every sudden movement and I don’t want her to get lost or run over by a shopping cart. So, she knows, she needs to stay close. And, yeah, it ticks me off when I have to say it AGAIN for the twenty-eighth time!
I’m kind of getting myself upset just thinking about that one. Let me take one of those deep breaths now. Whoooooh. That’s better. When I’m able to keep my wits, I remind myself (sometimes out loud) how important it is to remain calm. Discussions are good. I have to stop from being curt with Penny and ask her what is wrong, why she’s getting upset, or why she’s moseying down the aisle without me. Sometimes the answer that is plain as day to the four-year-old will be completely overlooked by the thirty-four year old, until it is explicitly pointed out to him. Just talking to the fightin’ four year old can resolve many conflicts before they start. Sometimes I just have to ask Penny if she is being a “good listener” to get her pay attention to what I’m saying.
Rational discussions are not always possible, like when Penny is already flipping the eff out. So I go back to that old standby, the timeout. It took me a while to implement this practice in public, but I’m on board now. Any bench or chair will do, really. The important thing is silence, or what amounts to “silence” with a four-year-old.
Sometimes You Have to Yell to be Heard
There are, however, those instances when a parent just has to let ‘er rip! When it happens, make it count. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Penny knows if she misbehaves she might get in trouble and get yelled at. Sometimes I get angry. And sometimes it’s her fault. It’s usually because she’s doing something potentially dangerous, that could get her hurt or lost. And those things scare the crap out of me. (Of course, sometimes it’s because I haven’t had enough coffee and I’m in a pissy mood; or Penny and Simon have worn me down all day long and I’m in a pissy mood; or I’m just having one of those days where I’m in a really pissy friggin’ mood. It happens. She usually gets ice cream or an extra show after a daddy meltdown.) My wife and I have tried to teach Penny right and wrong and how to be smart in a given situation. She usually knows if she’s done something unacceptable, and if she doesn’t understand why she shouldn’t do it, we explain it to her. Without being asked, she almost always apologizes. And I give her a hug and kiss and apologize for yelling.
Literally or figuratively, it usually hurts me more than it hurts her.
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—photo by Abi Skipp/Flickr