OPB's response

Sorry this took so long -- definitely not OPB's fault, as they responded to my request for posting permission the very next day, and we have since exchanged yet one more email apiece. Overall my impression of OPB's customer service is very favorable. My impression of their judgment is a bit lower.

Essentially the issue is this: is the entire range of physical discipline worse for a child than the entire range of verbal discipline? My answer is a solid NO -- it is much healthier for a child to receive kind, loving physical discipline than it is for him or her to be yelled at in anger.

The other assumption being made is that parents are incapable of restraining themselves and searching out good communicative ways to let their kids know that they have crossed the line. And that, frankly, is amazing to me. When our expectations of ourselves are so low, it's no wonder that we don't expect more out of our kids.

Having said all that in response, I am still totally impressed that I got such a thoughtful response from the good folks at OPB. Although we disagree thoroughly on this issue, I love knowing that they are open to a little friendly debate on things like this. And I'm proud to now be a member.

Without further ado, here's the rest of my OPB correspondence (all last week):

Dear Jed,

Thank you for contacting Oregon Public Broadcasting. I'm happy to listen to and respond to your complaint about "This American Life," whether or not you're a member, and *even* if you hadn't promised to join during the fall drive.

I didn't hear the show this week, but I listened to the last segment just now so I could properly reply. Some thoughts (speaking as the parent of two wonderful grown children who I occasionally got very angry at - sometimes very deserved, other times not so much):

-- The theme of the show was about how adults talk to kids, and so the piece about yelling has to be seen in the larger context. (As a long-time fan of TAL, you certainly understand that the show is often greater than the sum of its parts. The context the show creates from smaller pieces is one of its special virtues). I haven't heard the other segments, but they took a very different angle (comedians at summer camp; talking to kids about sex).

-- One of Savage's main points was that removal of physical punishment as an accepted parenting tool is a good thing, but that when you REALLY NEED to get a child's attention, your primary tool is words, and he feels the most powerful words and voices need to be used. There are times when children can go way over any appropriate line, and that has to be conveyed in some strong and attention-grabbing way. To me, the Alec Baldwin tape was over the line more because of the abusive nature of the words and language he used than the level of his anger.

-Kids and parents are not all alike, and even the most loving, well-meaning, non-abusive and effective parents will draw lines in different places and in different ways. Some parents have a base level of everyday expression much higher than others, and when they have to seriously escalate their language it will necessarily have to go to a higher level.

-While you're right that there was no twist at the end of the piece, I do think Savage was trying to be deliberately provocative, and to make listeners think about how they used anger with their children. He seems to have succeeded in at least a couple of cases.

-Though I wasn't there Sunday, I was told by a staff member here that Ira Glass raised this very issue when he spoke in Portland, and asked how many in the audience thought that the piece went too far. Very few, if any, people raised their hands.

All that said, like you, I don't agree with all of what Savage said. Other things being equal, though, I'd always rather listen to someone who I don't agree with - how else do we ever learn anything?

I do especially appreciate your willingness to see this segment in the context of everything you value OPB and NPR for, and not to allow something you disliked so strongly to distort your sense of all that we do and offer our audience.

I do hope you'll join OPB, and I hope your children will someday as well! (We promise never to yell at any of you!)

OPB Member Center

Hi Tom,

Wow! I wasn't really expecting to get a response at all, let alone such a thoughtful one. Thank you for the time you took both to listen to the piece (I wish I had a job where listening to TAL was part of the job description! :-) ) and to respond to me. I appreciate it both on a corporate level (obviously OPB has made this a priority) and on a personal level (obviously you are a person who strives to both understand and communicate).

My complaint was based not on the piece being personally objectionable, but on a sincere belief that the airing of it was harmful to the community I live in due to its encouragement of those elements of our society that see no problem in harming kids verbally. Naturally, I would have been happier to hear you respond that upon hearing the piece, you were as upset as I was and that OPB was lodging a complaint with TAL... but the depth and diplomacy of your response at least tells me that OPB pays attention to their listeners' opinions -- I feel heard.

I blogged the complaint letter I first sent; with your permission I would like to post your response as well. The blog (http://oau.blogspot.com) is small and usually quite private with a readership of 30 or so. I will hold off on posting until I hear from you.

I smiled to myself when I heard the pledge drive this afternoon; I hadn't listened since Sunday (!) and felt sheepish having talked about the pledge drive as if it was a future event -- you guys will get my call tomorrow.

Thanks again for your time,


Hi Jed,
I wasn't in the office Friday and so didn't read your e-mail until today,
but I think someone else may have replied to your request to post my reply
on your blog. That's fine, as long as you post the entire thing. I do
appreciate your asking; not everyone does that these days.

As to your point about Savage's piece sending exactly the wrong message to
people who already see no problem in verbally abusing kids: I guess I
don't think it's a simple cause and bad effect. It's our whole life
experience that makes us what we are as parents, not just a single radio
show. All the other possible influences from media and culture and our own
childhoods really overwhelm any 12 minute segment, not matter how
effective and powerful it might be. It just doesn't seem very plausible
to me that anyone would become an abuser, or increase the level of their
abuse, because of what they heard Dan say - it's too ambiguous, too filled
with ethical complexity (especially in the opening anecdote about his
teaching German). And at one point he referred to what he was advocating
as "my volume," which in and of itself is a long way from abuse,
especially when its very exceptionalism is what gives it so much of its

But even if we agreed the story had this power, it's still not so
straightforward: he made a particular point of saying "because of
course you can't hit them," with which the woman he talked
emphatically agreed. So any message about yelling being okay was combined
with - in fact it was completely derived from and bound with - a message
that *any* hitting was not acceptable, even if it might have once been in
the past. Moving any physically abusive parent into the verbal-abuse-only
camp is at least *a* step in the right direction, I'd argue.

That's just a couple of complications to this particular situation. In the
larger picture there's the issue of different listeners interpreting
things in different ways, hearing only what they want to hear, finding
unintended and unimagined and non-existent meanings in things, and the
almost infinite number of messages that can potentially flow from 168
hours a week of radio programming. Filtering content to eliminate even
most conceivably harmful kinds of results can become pretty impossible
pretty quickly. Ultimately I think all the great and wonderful things that
flow from free and open intelligent expression are so much more powerfully
positive and healing than the damage - no matter how real - that comes
from those few people that abuse others smaller than themselves. I really
think almost all of the sources of that abuse lie elsewhere. (Don't you
think someone who really listened to TAL every week - including last week
- would be a more tolerant and empathetic person at the end of the year?)

None of that means that we don't take our responsibility to the community
extremely seriously. It's why we're here, and whom we serve.

Finally, can you send me your mailing address? I saw something at our open
house today I thought I'd send you.

OPB Membership Coordinator


Jeana said...

Nice! I'm impressed.

What did he send you?

Fogey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fogey said...

"It's our whole life experience that makes us what we are as parents, not just a single radio show. All the other possible influences from media and culture and our own childhoods really overwhelm any 12 minute segment, not matter how effective and powerful it might be."

Don't hold my little old show responsible for its own content! After all, how can we possibly impact lives?

"Don't you think someone who really listened to TAL every week - including last week - would be a more tolerant and empathetic person at the end of the year?"

Our show rules because of our great content! Keep listening, and we'll impact your life for the better!

And how!

*end lisp*

Ryan Donovan said...

So I had a thought today that I think is at least sorta related to the whole discussion of how we speak to kids. Not sure what I even think about my thought. But here it is.

Growing up I played a lot of sports. I played baseball, soccer, and basketball. And in all of those sports I have been yelled at. And in truth, I think I often needed it. I needed to be yelled at for my lack of effort, or for making the same mistake over and over again. And I don't resent the coaches that yelled at me. I like them. I probably didn't like them in the moment, but they taught me. And I knew they meant it. They held my feet to the fire. And I think my character was refined in some ways from those interactions.

I didn't have any coaches who were just yellers, but I recognize that there are extreme cases that are overboard. I knew that my coaches cared about me, and they had a relationship with me where they could get after me when I messed up. But the bottom line is that I have, on occassion, been yelled at, and I think I am actually a better man today as a result of there livid-ness.

Some side notes or wonders. 1. Would a boy who was never once yelled at in his growing up years grow into a wuss? And is that possibly an actual bad thing? It seems like men need to be men, and I hope that if I'm ever blessed with a boy, that I can help him grow into a non-wussified man. Not some man who runs around beating everybody up or some other crazy stuff like that, but a man who, if he were to witness a woman being mistreated or abused, would have big enough "wherewithall" to make it stop. 2. I ain't much of a yeller. Pretty much at all. So I'm not trying to defend the Yeller's Club of America or anything. These are just thoughts that came into my mind today. 3. I wasn't raised in a home where I can remember being yelled at. Probably happened a few times, for reasons that I probably deserved. I am pretty sure my dad probably yelled at me some when he was my basketball coach, too. 4. In relation to sports, men's and women's sports are so different, and I'm thinking point to some fundamental differences regarding raising boys and girls. Men learn through athletics that it is fun to work hard, see results in yourself you might not have realized you could achieve, be a part of a larger team, and to win, while women seem to (as a general rule, and please, please, no one shoot me or anything) have a greater focus on relationships, even through their athletics. 5. How does life on the athletic field translate into raising children. Could it be at moments appropriate for a parent to yell at their kid. Not yell in a berating or demeaning way, but in a way that lets the kid know a line was really crossed. I really don't know these kinds of things because... 6. I have zero kids, so I basically know nothing about parenting, so who do I think I am?

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm Peter,

In case you haven't heard from other's, I had exactly the same reaction to the piece you did. I generally love Dan Savage's work on TAL (walking the poodle was hilarious), but I was horrified. Good job on your letter and good for OPB for responding.


Jed said...

Ok, this took me a reaaaaally long time to get around to.

@jeana: a really hilarious set of two glasses with 'illustrations' from TAL stories. They're really funny and odd, I ought to post a picture of them.

@fogey: [rolls eyes]

@ryan: whether or not we agree on where and when, I totally agree that there is a time and a place for yelling at kids. I never had much sports exposure as a kid, so I can't really speak to that -- my comments are fairly specific to the home setting, I guess.

I have yelled at my kids plenty of times when they were about to walk into the street, touch the stove, sit on their baby brother, etc -- and that is totally appropriate, it is using your voice in a way to startle and stop an action that would otherwise be harmful. And beyond that, I will readily confess to raising my voice at my kids for other non-life-threatening offenses -- far more often than I should. And what I will say is this: depending on your goal, yelling works. It can be fairly effective at getting your kid to stop doing what he is doing. It's also fairly effective at shutting off all lines of communication that might otherwise have provided you with an insight on why your kid was behaving like a barbarian. In addition, it works pretty well at putting up walls between you and your kids, making them feel like you have no respect for them, and allowing them to focus their frustration *externally* on you as the parent for yelling at them rather than *internally* at themselves for making unwise behavioral choices.

I'm no expert here either -- God has seen fit to give me 5 years of parenting experience so far, and I have no doubt that there will be things I look back on in dismay once I've got a few more years under my belt. But I hope that overall my kids will know that I love them and respect them enough to let them learn their own lessons from the consequences of their actions rather than having to shout them into their heads.

@peter: welcome! Thanks for the kudos. Feel free to dive in on discussions like this anytime.