One Way to Break a Child

I’ve been listening to the man next door yelling at his child. Again. It’s the kind of yelling that just goes on. Not the short and effective “No! Don’t!”, but endless. Yelling for yelling’s sake. Because it certainly does the child no good.

I want to go next door and tell him,

Don’t do this. You don’t want to do this to your kid. Look at me. I can tell you, it hurts. It sucks and it will break him and he will spend the rest of his life trying to mend it.

Your kid doesn’t understand what you’re going on about. He’s what, 7? Respect, honor, pride… these are all abstractions. He doesn’t get it when you yell at him that he doesn’t respect you. Tell him instead what respect means. Tell him respect means listening while the other person talks, and you need him to do that. Tell him there are consequences if he doesn’t, and then give him a consequence that matters. Give him a timeout. Trust me, being told to sit alone by himself and knowing that he disappointed you is far more effective than being yelled at.

Yelling just makes him draw in on himself. It makes him scared, and eventually it will make him angry. It tells him he deserves to be treated that way, and not just by you. He’ll let other people treat him like crap, because it’s what he’s used to. It’s what he deserves. More to the point, it’s what you’re teaching him he deserves.

If he gets angry instead, he’s going to take it out on everyone. He’s going to yell, because that’s what power means to him. He’s going to yell at friends, co-workers, girlfriends (or boyfriends). He’s going to yell at his own kid someday, if he ever actually has one. His self confidence is going to be so precarious, anyone questioning him will send it crashing to the ground, and he’ll hit back. He’ll be closed minded and afraid of anything he doesn’t understand.

If you don’t care about that, then care about this. You going on for 20 or 30 minutes will make him tune you out. It all becomes noise, like the Charlie Brown teacher, except louder and angrier. It won’t stick. He won’t understand it. He’s a kid, for goodness sake. He won’t understand the finer points of respect and masculinity that you’re going on about. For that matter, I’m pretty sure he’s not the one who needs to hear it.

If you must yell, make it short. Make it startling. Make it something that he doesn’t expect so that when you do it, it freezes him in his tracks. And then stop yelling. Then explain to him what he’s doing wrong. Don’t overexplain. Just tell him, “I need you to listen to me when I’m talking with you. When you don’t listen, it makes me feel like you don’t care what I think and it makes me worry, because I’m supposed to protect you. I can’t do that if you don’t listen, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Even that’s too much, but at least it’s simple. And if it doesn’t work, time out. Or no dessert. Or extra time doing schoolwork. Or no play time with his friend tomorrow. Something that is a concrete consequence. Something that makes him realize his actions have meaning. Right now… they don’t. Right now, he just knows you yell at him. And he doesn’t understand why. So he doesn’t know how to fix it. He will never know how to fix it. And that will apply to his whole life.

He will never believe that when something’s gone wrong it can be fixed. You’re teaching him that his life is completely out of his control and he can do nothing to change it. You’re teaching him that he’s too dumb to figure out what to do. Because a 7 year old faced with the philosophical rant you just gave? He’s not going to understand it and he’ll assume that’s because he’s not smart enough to understand. He won’t realize that it’s you raging on pointlessly and taking your fears out on him.

He’ll become me.

He’ll become you.

And I want to say these things, but I can’t. I’m too afraid to break the social contract and go over to a man’s house to tell him he’s raising his child wrong. And I’m too cynical to believe it would do any good. It would just make him angrier, and then I’ll have contributed to his kid getting broken.

Or perhaps I’m already complicit, in my silence.


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