By Joan Goodchild
It’s been 10 years since Hal Runkel, author and licensed family and marriage therapist, first published his book, Screamfree Parenting. While the ideas behind creating a happier, calmer household free of yelling haven’t changed, the world has — drastically. And a lot of that has to do with our dependence on devices, he says.
“Technology has so much more presence in our lives now,” Runkel notes. “Because it is so ubiquitous, screens are how we spend our lives. Now parents are using screens to soothe babies and toddlers, to get them to stop crying. But if we’re just throwing a mesmerizing screen in front of our kids, we are shortcutting the process of parenting. We are asking screens to parent for us.”
Runkel’s Screamfree Parenting philosophy, first espoused in his 2007 book, offers advice and education on how to have more calm, cool, and respectful exchanges between family members. In it, he encourages parents to let children experience the consequences of their actions, rather than yelling at them for misbehavior.
“People say to me, ‘My kids don’t listen.’ I tell them, ‘Yes, they do. They hear every word. They just don’t obey.’ We think our words should automatically change their behavior, and we get upset when they don’t,” he says.
His philosophy encourages parents to turn down the volume and instead provide consequences without all the drama. That means no warnings, no second chances after bad behavior starts, just quick and simple consequences without the blow-up.
“Enact logical consequences for their behavior,” he advises. “These are natural, logical, consequences, a way of saying, ‘I’m not going to be angry at you. I’m just going to lovingly introduce you to the way the world works.’”
But screens present a new challenge to this model, one that he addresses in the new 10th anniversary edition.
“They undermine the need for us to grow up,” he says. “Screamfree Parenting is a growth model. Parenting is designed to be difficult because it requires us to grow up as parents. Kids test you; screens don’t allow you to be tested. But it’s our job to pass that test, by helping them walk through a difficult situation.”
In the new edition, Runkel tells a story he has never told publicly before. As a new, stay-at-home dad, one stressed-filled day he came very close to physically abusing his daughter. After handling her while she cried inconsolably for hours, Runkel became, as he describes it, “completely flooded with frustration” and roughly dropped her into her crib and told her to shut up. He was instantly filled with regret. The incident was an “a-ha” moment in his life and parenting journey.
“I realized this can happen to the best of us,” he says. “Any of us can lose our mind. It was a watershed moment where I realized I have to come up with something other than screaming and hitting.”
As a graduate student working toward a degree in therapy, Runkel learned more about human behavior and the downside of yelling as a parent. He and his wife, both of whom came from childhoods that contained hitting and screaming, began creating principles about what they wanted to do differently with their family. In school, he learned about emotional reactivity, a term that describes how parents react to child-related stress. And the most common form of emotional reactivity? Screaming.
“It’s self-defeating. It creates the very outcomes you were hoping to avoid in the first place. It’s a shortcut that makes the next time you deal with it even harder,” he says.
And screaming, because it is a disrespectful act, ultimately leads to disrespect from children, Runkel says.
“You make it incredibly unlikely that you’ll have kids that will respect you and make good decisions if all they have experienced from you is you freaking out in the name of making them behave. People say, ‘Well, that’s the only way to get their attention.’ My response: ‘Until when?’ As kids get to be teens, will they seek you out as a guide? All they are going to do is hide themselves from you,” he adds.
Turning down the volume
So, how do you create a scream-free atmosphere in your household? Runkel says it’s all about a shift in mindset. Parenting, he says, isn’t about kids — it’s about parents. Learning to focus on yourself and keeping yourself under control is Step 1.
The second is that as parents, we are not responsible for our children, he notes. He contends that parents are not responsible for their children, but to their children for how we behave, regardless of their choices.
“If you think your job is to get your kid to behave, good luck,” he says. “Our job is to get them to learn — themselves — to behave. That is the essential mindset shift. You have to learn to focus on your behavior and learn to ask yourselves why things aren’t working.”
Taking the drama out of every day
In revisiting the book after a decade, Runkel also included stories of families who have put Screamfree Parenting into practice. For example, one family installed small mirrors around their home so they could see how they looked in the heat of tough parenting moments. It was a way for them to be mindful of the image they were conveying daily to their children, Runkel says.
In the end, whether it is screaming, rolling your eyes, or giving off another stressed impression to your child, it comes down to respect, he says. Drama and freak outs won’t ultimately earn you the respect you want from your children.
“You can’t force people to respect you,” he notes. “The biggest efforts to force them to respect you often don’t work. Respect needs to be earned with respect.”
Joan Goodchild is a veteran writer and editor, and a mom of two living in Central Massachusetts.