Sisterhood Blog

On Yelling — and Trying To Channel Claire Huxtable

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

  • Print
  • Share Share

I read this recent New York Times piece called “Shouting is the New Spanking” on yelling with great interest, because I have been known to yell at my family members. Okay, family members, you can stop laughing now. I haven’t been “known” to yell, rather I could be described as “a yeller.”

It feels a bit embarrassing to admit this shameful thing. It’s socially unacceptable and, let’s face it, it has class and ethnic overtones. I picture struggling Jewish and Italian mothers hanging out of New York tenements screaming for their kids to come in for dinner. Screaming seems to go with frizzy hair. It’s hard to imagine that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis ever yelled at her kids.

Perhaps it’s more about status and class than membership in an ethnic minority.

Think about the difference between Edith and Archie on “All in the Family”, a white working class couple from Queens who constantly yelled at each other and their daughter and son-in-law, and “The Cosby Show,”, about a well-educated professional black couple and their children from Brooklyn Heights. Claire Huxtable never raised her voice — a meaningful look or raised eyebrow seemed to keep her kids in line. In fact, the angrier she got, the more honeyed her voice became.

I aspire to Claire Huxtable power and control. But let’s face it, even after almost 16 years of parenting three children, my patience is sorely tested by my 8 year old having a major melt down. I just can’t take the kvetching!

Over at “Double X” Emily Yoffe has posted a piece about being a yeller, and admirably says that

I’ve made a conscious effort over the years to reduce what was becoming habitual voice-raising. And whenever I hear my own decibel level increase, I’m aware that I’ve just damaged my authority. This doesn’t mean I never lose it (and I think it’s important for kids to understand that people can get really mad at each other and then make up), but I’ve found that when a raised voice is a rare occurence, your child hears you much better.

I’m not sure that I buy this bit of conventional parenting wisdom.

Like Yoffe, I too have made a concerted effort to yell less, but the truth is I haven’t been as successful as she apparently has. I am not a particularly patient woman and I just have little capacity to listen to whining.

And, as the mother of three children who each has a different personality, I find that one size does not fit all.

Each responds best to a different approach when it comes to discipline and discussion. And that too varies by age and maturity. I have one child who is very, very sensitive to being yelled at but doesn’t seem to hear me when I tell that child, for the umpteenth time, to hang up their jacket, in a regular tone of voice. A raised tone of voice is the only thing that sometimes gets this child’s attention, though alternating it with a very controlled, quiet voice is also effective.

One of my other kids responds best, these days, to a combination of gentle speech and a raised tone of voice when they are having a hard time. Sometimes a loud voice is needed to get through to that child in the midst of their being upset about something, but then it is most effectively paired with a hug and gentle reassurances. Another of my children is responsive to most requests or directions in a regular tone of voice, so it is rare that I raise my voice to that child.

But I want to distinguish between productive yelling and abusive yelling.

I know well what the latter feels like.

I grew up in a house where my parents were angry and depressed, and alienated from one another, but they rarely yelled at each other. They mostly went their separate, sad ways. One parent abusively screamed at me, which did terrible damage. But just as damaging was the absence of nurturing from the other parent, who was unable to deal with the emotional rawness of what was going on and so just walked away.

So there’s yelling, and then there’s yelling. Just like there is silence, and then there is silence. Neither is always the best approach. I would rather be yelled at than frozen out, myself, because if something is said — even if it is yelled — it can be dealt with.

Both may come from a place of feeling powerless, but there’s a distinction to be made between belittling, insulting screaming, and a raised tone of voice that can, I think, actually be constructive.

Contrary to the current wave of popular parenting opinion, I don’t think that all yelling is inherently bad or destructive.

That said, it’s a tool best used intentionally, though I tend not to believe any parent who says that they’ve never wanted to spank their child or that they never yell, or that they only have arguments with their spouse behind closed doors. None of us is able to do everything with intention — particularly when we’re upset and frustrated.

But I’m working on my own control over when I use this tool. And, I live in Brooklyn, not far from the fictional Huxtables. Maybe one day I, like Claire Huxtable, will have the ability to use a mellifluous voice to get my children’s attention each and every time.

Good luck with that.

Sarah Thu. Oct 29, 2009

I love hearing other people describe my parenting struggles - I find it encouraging to know that I'm not the only one who can't stand whining and tantrums, who occasionally says (or yells) something despite knowing better and despite having felt terrible about it the last n times I did it.

I also love the description of Claire Huxtable - entirely accurate description of the Claire I remember and that we all aspire to. (I knew exactly what you meant just from the title of this piece!)

I just hope you're right. I hope the yelling that we do really is constructive rather than destructive, and I hope that however many times we might make the wrong choices in dealing with our kids, that the right choices and the overall love will be enough to protect them from "damage."

Sarah Thu. Oct 29, 2009

I'm curious - do your kids read your blog posts??

Elana Sztokman Fri. Oct 30, 2009

I think there is a distinct cultural and gender component to the yelling discussion. For my dissertation, I looked at adolescent identity among girls in a school with two major cliques – the upper-class anglos and the working class or on welfare mizrahiyot. Tons of differences. Class, ethnicity, language, dress, music, food….. AND the way of talking. Americans hate the way Israeli-mizrahiyot seem to yell. Mizrahiyot, by contrast, think that Americans are fake, snobs. If you sit back politely and don’t say anything while others around you are yelling, you’re seen as either a big snob or socially incompetent. What Americans see as polite, Israelis see as fake. Interesting, no? yelling is “real”, or “authentic”. I had this conversation with a girl once, a big, burly Mizrahi girl who takes up space and sound, who was talking about her neighborhood and ethnicity and she said that her mother is very proud of her for her reputation as a good yeller. “My neighbor tells my mother, bli ayin hara, your daughter can yell!” Like, she was saying that for her as a moroccan, this is a thing to be proud of. So there’s something about the whole pressure to not yell which is very “girly” in the European sense. You know, don’t take up too much space, be genteel, be always sweet and angelic with endless patience. It’s a very Victorian image of women. The mizrahiyot don’t have that in their heritage at all. The whole gentility doesn’t speak to them, especially that kind of upper-class polite gentility. So I think that part of the pressure we feel to not yell is to fit into old images of correct womanness, kind, sweet, doormatty

jill hamburg coplan Fri. Oct 30, 2009

Brilliant. Good luck, indeed! Sztokman's comments are fascinating. I'll never forget the shock & horror of a high-WASP college boyfriend when I yelled at him in front of others (he said in his family, a dirty look could set off a feud lasting generations). My fantasy has always been to write a history of anger, inspired by Diane Ackerman's Natural History of the Senses & Natural History of Love. It's so rich. As many of its rooms as I have unfortunately explored, there are so many more!

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.