More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Don't Yell -- Use the Voice of Authority
by Robert Needlman, M.D.
Tue, Aug 21, 2007

I am getting out of my car when I hear it. Across the street, in the yard of a neat brick home, a woman is telling a child to "Get over here!" There is a hard edge to her voice. The edge says "Get over here, or else." That tone makes my chest tighten.

Sitting in the pediatric clinic, I hear the same tone of voice. A father is telling his child to sit down and shut up. In all fairness, our clinic is a hard place for young children and their parents. Time goes by slowly in a small room where everything is off limits. So I'm not all that surprised to hear that angry tone. Still, it makes me wonder:

I wonder, is this parent's anger really necessary? What does it do to a child to live under constant threats? Does it make her more obedient, or more rebellious? Does she learn to pay attention to her parents in order to avoid getting yelled at? Or does she learn to tune out the parents until the threat level rises from yellow to red?

When I hear this tone, and the child is a patient of mine, I usually ask the parent, "Are you happy with your approach to discipline?" The answer is usually that yelling feels bad to the parent who is doing it. Sometimes parents can remember how they used to feel when their own parents treated them harshly. Most parents would like to change, but don't know how. They think that their child's behavior leaves them no choice.

My job is to convince them that they do, in fact, have a choice. I know many parents whose children are active, stubborn, intense, and basically hard to manage. These parents speak to their children politely, often using "please" and "thank you." But when they give commands, their voice gets slower, lower, and quieter. Their tone says, now I am telling you, not asking you.

These parents have learned to give a command just once, and then take action. They say "You need to leave that light switch alone," and then if their child can't resist the temptation, they pick him up and move him to another part of the room. They say, "You need to stay in the room." Then, if their child can't resist the lure of the hallway, they move their chair in front of the door. Their children learn to recognize "the voice of authority" and know that they have to comply. They don't have a choice.

Of course, gaining authority as a parent takes more than just the right tone of voice. It takes the confidence that you will be in charge when you need to be, and the child's confidence that you will be in charge. A harsh, threatening tone of voice is a sure sign that that confidence is lacking, and that the parent needs to begin making changes and taking charge.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Disciplining Difficult Kids
by Robert Needlman, M.D.
Wed, Aug 29, 2007

To everyone who sent in comments about my entry, "Don't Yell -- Use the Voice of Authority" ... thanks! I'm always glad when people agree with me, and also when people disagree. The disagreements show me where I haven't been as helpful as I should be.

Let me try to clear things up a bit:

  • All parents yell sometimes. It's part of the job. If yelling once in a while does the trick, then by all means, yell away! But there's yelling, and then there's yelling: Talking loudly to get your child's attention is one thing. Using a threatening, angry, do-it-or-else tone of voice is another. A tone that says, "You're driving me crazy and I need you to stop right now!" is fine. A tone that says, "I'm sorry you were ever born, I despise you, and I'm about one second away from hurting you!" is another story. A tone like that causes real damage.
  • On the matter of discipline and pain: I personally don't think spanking is helpful, but I also don't think spanking, by itself, is harmful. Many parents use spanking as a teaching tool. Combined with love, this approach often works fine. Love and firmness without spanking often works equally well, if not better. There has been a lot of research on spanking, and I think that it supports my point of view. For more on spanking, see my entry "A Good Spanking".
  • On the matter of "Please and Thank You": The best way to teach a child to be polite is to be polite to the child, and to let the child see you being polite to others. Saying "please" is a way to convey to the child that he has a choice. For example, you come in from playing in the park and you remind your child, "Please take off your shoes before you come inside." If your child chooses to ignore your request and tracks mud on the kitchen floor, he has to clean it up whether he wants to or not. So you leave out the "please" and say, "Now you need to mop the floor, before you do anything else." Choices are good for children, because they can learn from the consequences. See my blog entry "Asking and Telling."
  • There's no question that some children are easier to discipline than others. "Easy" children make parents feel they're great parents. "Difficult" children -- the ones who don't listen, who challenge rules, who run away in stores, and who test limits again and again -- make parents feel inadequate. Or they make parents feel that they've been cursed to live with a child who seems hell-bent on stressing them out. Neither of these feelings is fair or helpful. Raising a very difficult child takes special parenting skills, above and beyond normal, everyday "good" parenting. Sometimes it also takes help from a doctor or other professional. If a child has ADHD, treatment with medication often makes a huge difference (see my blog entries from January 21st, 2006 and February 15th, 2006). And children with autism sometimes need professional behavior therapy, as part of a team approach.
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