Silence is an underrated tool in the arsenal of parenting

I am trying something that is extraordinarily difficult for every parent. I plan to cease and desist from all parental instructions; or at least reduce their volume and frequency quite significantly.

I am what I would call an involved parent. My kids have another pithy word to describe my modus operandi: nagging. Completely untrue, I might add.

While I don’t consider myself opinionated, I have thought through things and developed views about how to do things—the right way and the wrong way. I am also a champion of the teachable moment, which could be, if you think about it, every waking moment that your child is with you.

When we walk to school, I point out trees and talk about networking and the tree of life. When we are stuck in traffic, I tell them about how meditation can help them unwind and spark creativity. When we go to the grocery store, I “discuss” nutrition and food choices.

As my daughter says, “It is exhausting.” In return, I ask: what does she have to be exhausted about? After all, I am the one coming up with sprightly thoughts and sensible advice. All she does is roll her eyes, with yellow earphone wires snaking out of her ears.

So far, I saw nothing wrong with this maximalist approach. After all, our children are in our purview for just 18 or so years. Doesn’t it behoove every good parent to pack in all the advice?

But a funny thing has happened now that both my daughters are teenagers. I find that their eyes glaze over when I begin talking. Worse, they say what I am about to say and not in an admiring-imitation fashion either. They have grown positively grumpy. Grumpy voice and glassy eyes. That’s the thanks I get for all these years of advice.

This year, I made a vow. I would stop advising them. Heck, I would stop speaking altogether. Those morning chants of “wake up, wake up, wake up”? Gone.

The incessant orders masked as questions? “When are you going to start your homework?” “Have you had your bath yet?” Gone.

I will be as silent as a monk on a mountaintop till my kids beg me to dispense my pearls of wisdom. That’s the plan anyway.

Silence is an underrated tool in the arsenal of parenting. So far, I have only used it to give the silent treatment to erring pre-teens. This is a different approach. It involves pausing before every uttered instruction, quickly figuring out if I really need to utter that instruction, and hopefully not saying anything at all.

Basically, I plan to do what every married man learns to do fairly quickly: listen, nod and remain silent.

Silence is the latest practice to hit the spectrum of thought exercises that began with meditation, mindfulness and then moved on to gratitude, loving-kindness meditation, cognitive behavioural therapy and self-compassion. The goal of all these is to soften and shape the mind as if it were a clay sculpture.

Silence is both a late-comer to this party, as well as being one of the oldest. From Vedic rishis to Benedictine monks, from Sufi saints to Buddhist teachers, every faith has used silence as a way to access spirituality, compassion and centering of the mind.

And yet, silence—like mothers, I might add—has been under appreciated in the modern arsenal of mind-body practices. Until now.

Amazon is building a giant nature preserve to encourage creative thinking among its employees. The idea is that its employees will walk in silence amid this enclosed nature preserve and come up with world-changing ideas.

Bengaluru-based data analytics firm Mu Sigma has asked its employees to “go quiet for an hour every day”, as Mintreported. Companies are scrambling for ways to empower and encourage employees, not just to be more productive but also to think brilliantly and not burn out. Silence is the practice du jour.

My own experiment doesn’t begin well, mostly because I have set myself an impossible goal. I will be silent while my daughter drives our car. For a month, she enrolled in a driving school, got her driver’s licence, and is, as she repeatedly points out, a legal bonafide driver who should be able to simply get into a car and drive, rather than enduring parental questions, doubts and instructions.

One day, we decide to do just that.

We set off early in the morning morning for a drive to St Mark’s Road. I clench my fist as she turns into the road. She is too close to the car on the left, she isn’t anticipating the darting stray dogs and scooters, she is driving too fast, braking too hard, not driving fast enough…

You will be proud of me, dear reader, for I uttered nary a word. None of the above sentences that drummed my head made their way out of my mouth. There was silence in the car. At the end of our drive, my daughter got out and smiled through stiff lips. At least this time I hadn’t made her cry.

The first time we drove together, I kept lifting the emergency brake and kept up a litany of screaming instructions. “Look out. You are too close to the car in front. Slow down. SLOW DOWN. Press the brake.”

“Ma, stop it. You are making me nervous,” she cried. Not cried in the figurative sense, but literally with tears threatening to spill out.

After a few iterations, I decided on the silence protocol. It was among the hardest things I have done. Essentially, it involves biting your tongue so you don’t speak. Sure, my blood pressure went up. Sure, I clenched my fist till I drew blood. But at least I wasn’t abusing my child. And she drove better.

As Alison Gopnik wisely points out in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, what the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children is that there are two ways to parent.

The carpenter believes that he can sculpt his child through instruction, criticism and specific activities or goals into something that he envisions them to be. The gardener simply lays the framework in which plants—in this case, children—can thrive.

We all intuitively want to be gardeners, gently tending our flock of children so that they become the best they can be. In this scenario, we simply lay the groundwork for them to grow.

The reality of daily parenting, however, is more carpenter than gardener, more screaming coach than compassionate nurturer. It is a litany of instructions rather than setting the scene for growth. Taking a deep breath and holding your tongue can help balance this out.

This is difficult to do because we have to subdue the 18 muscles required for articulation, including the pharyngeal, glottal, epiglottal, apical and radical. The tongue is the most important organ in speech. To tie it up requires an act of will.

For me, what helped restrain my tongue was humming. Yes, really. After all, the earliest type of speech was called musillanguage. According to one stream of thinking, language evolved from the guttural sounds that humans made when they experienced emotions.

From our early sounds of weeping and shouts of happiness came the variation of tones that evolved parallelly into music and language. That’s the hypothesis, anyway.

So, I sat in the back of the car, buried my face into the newspaper and hummed tunelessly as my daughter drove. It didn’t silence my thoughts, but at least it silenced my words—and drove my daughter crazy, as she later told me.

My stance was the last refuge of my tortured mind and went against everything that I wanted to do. After all, the human instinct is to encode thoughts into words. Of what use these words if you cannot speak them?

Things are getting better though. I am learning to pause before I speak. I am learning to hold back the conversion of thought into spoken word. I am learning to embrace, and indeed, revel in silence.

I wish I could tell you that it has made me wiser, or that it has solved all the mother-daughter quarrels in our household. But what it has done is given both sides some respite.

When I don’t snap to judgement or swiftly bark out orders, it gives my kids the space to choose, decide and make mistakes. I discovered that they are surprisingly good at it. They weigh and judge consequences, act swiftly when needed, and most delightful of all, aren’t always in danger of self-destructing.

This then is the mother’s delusion, isn’t it? That things will fall apart if we aren’t around, that things are always better when we do it, and that our kids need us at every step of their lives.

Proactive parenting is the philosophy I have espoused for most of my life. To my shock, pulling back by way of silence was the best thing for my kids.

Read Shoba Narayan’s previous columnshere.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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