For years my children’s bedtime routine started early—ridiculously early, like 4:30 p.m. I’d dim all the lights and close every curtain so it looked like the middle of the night. After a warm bath and dinner, all three would be tucked into bed by 6:30.
That bedtime routine was for me. Sure, my children would get a good night’s sleep, but after a long day with three small children, I’d relish those long nights to myself. Word got out that I had found the holy-grail of parenting—sleep before 7 p.m.—and friends would call and e-mail me asking for advice.
I thought I’d mastered the bedtime routine until my oldest, William, learned to tell time and started staging noisy night-time revolts. Even after we moved his bedtime later, 8-year-old William would fight going to bed for an hour or two, even more. Those nights would deteriorate into yelling and inevitably would end with me sending a bottle of wine and a funny note of apology to my neighbors downstairs.
Then a study came out suggesting, in some cases, yelling could be just as damaging to children as corporal punishment. Yelling, as bad as hitting? It became the hot topic of conversation at drop-offs and moms’ nights out. After a couple of glasses of wine, one mom admitted she pinches her kids to avoid yelling at them. Ouch. Another mom said she was finally going to give up yelling, and instead, would be whispering to her kids, a tip she’d read in a magazine.
(I tried the whisper technique on my kids the next day. The novelty of it worked for a few hours. But it eventually fell on deaf ears—as in, they literally couldn’t hear what I was saying.)
Another mom said she rarely yells and instead uses what her kids call “The Mean Mommy Voice,” an eerily calm, firm, kind of angry tone that gets her kids to listen up fast. She said it works particularly well in public places because “it makes you look like you’re keeping your cool when you’re really not.” Several other moms said they used one too.
That night, I calmly told my three children that it was lights out — and then went by their rooms 15 minutes later to find the lights still on and all three out of bed. It had been a long day, and I was exhausted. Instead of raising my voice, I channeled a slow, firm, mean mommy voice: “I – said – lights – out.”
It worked, immediately. Wow, so much more effective than yelling, I thought. That voice soon became my default method for discipline–at the park, at the store, at clean-up time– any time they didn’t listen to me right away. I started picking up on how many other moms used a mean mommy voice too. If yelling is the new spanking, as some claim, then could the mean mommy voice be the new yelling?
The mean voice worked so well that my neighbors had to start buying their own wine. But, I secretly began to worry that it may be a little too effective.
One night, my 7-year-old daughter calmly asked if I might possibly adopt a British accent the next time I get upset with her. “Your mean voice makes me really sad—it would be so much easier to hear if you spoke more like Mary Poppins,” she said. My youngest agreed: “Mommy, I really can’t take the mean voice,” he cried with the words of a little adult.
When I overheard my daughter imitating my tone with her little brother, it hit me: Is the mean mommy voice really just yelling in disguise?
I called New York-based therapist Debbie Pincus to ask her what she thought. “It’s perfectly fine to have a firm voice,” she assures me, “but, if that voice gets emotional, then it is essentially the same as yelling, just with a rougher tone.”
Debbie explains that yelling and those mommy mean voices essentially come from the same roots—frustration, anger and tension. “And those feelings,” she says, “come from the powerlessness we sometimes feel as parents when we can’t get our children to do what we need or want them to do.”
Sometimes it feels like my whole day is spent trying to get them to do things they don’t want to do, I tell Debbie. So, how exactly do I give up the tension in my voice–be it yelling or the mean mommy voice–and find a more neutral tone, I ask?
“When kids act out, parents often think they need to give an immediate response—resist that urge,” she tells me. Remember, you can’t control whether your child will be defiant, she says, but you can control your reaction to his defiance. Parents own that valuable real estate between a child acting out and their response to it, she tells me, so take your time and take advantage of it. In other words, zip it and stop with my knee-jerk reactions.
Could it really be that easy to just press the pause button? Staying calm and waiting a beat or two in a heated moment—no, it isn’t easy. But since my call with Debbie, I’ve been working on it. Yes, I still sometimes raise my voice when they push me too far, but I know that’s okay sometimes.
It’s been about a month now, and I’m starting to get the hang of my new neutral mommy voice. My kids are responding so positively to it that we’re just about back to having those peaceful bedtimes again. Honestly, I also think it helps to know that if things ever get really out of hand again, I can always fall back on my best Mary Poppins’ impression.
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