Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The sounds of silence

The woman behind me barely paused to take a breath. “Look down on the field! What do you think they’re doing? They’re rolling out a tarp! They’re covering the infield with that big piece of plastic. Look over there – that’s the pitcher warming up! See how he throws to the catcher? That’s so they’re both ready when it’s time to start the game. Look at the groundskeepers – they’re trying to seep up the puddles behind home plate! They need to make the field dry enough so that it will be safe for the players to run on.”

The toddler on her lap answered every third or fourth question. Other times he chattered back. And other times he didn’t respond at all.

His mother’s nonstop repartee reminded me of the phrase Judith Warner uses in “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety”: human television sets. Parents like me – and like Warner herself, and like the woman sitting behind me at the minor league baseball game on the Fourth of July – have so effectively internalized the idea that TV and videos for children are to be avoided at all costs that we sometimes instead turn ourselves into a replacement: providing the same nonstop chatter and entertainment that in our generation kids were allowed to absorb in small doses electronically. And as Warner points out, though avoiding kids’ TV is still a worthwhile plan, offering up ourselves as an entertainment alternative doesn’t necessarily provide a great service to our kids.

Just let him absorb the ambience, I wanted to tell the woman behind me, whose bubbly script continued even as the officials on the field conferred about whether to call a rain cancellation. She pointed out to her child the cloud formations, the crowds in the stands, the popcorn vendor, the umpires. She explained everything. Ceaselessly. Just let him take it in, I wished I could say. He doesn’t need this whole experience interpreted for him. Let him explore it with his eyes and ears and nose – and reconstitute it in his own words instead of yours.

When Tim was eight months old, I received a baby jogger for Mothers’ Day. From that point on, I went for a run and pushed him in the stroller almost every day. At first, he was too young to talk, but he didn’t give up the jog stroller until he was a little over three years old, and our practice didn’t change much during that time: I listened to NPR broadcasts through my radio headphones, while Tim drank in the passing scene. Once in a while, as he developed words, he would ask a question – “Who’s that? Why that pumpkin there? Those raindrops?” but usually, we both spend the 45 minutes in silence together.

And I came to believe it was a profoundly formative experience for him. This is what silence is like, I believed I was showing him. This is the silence when you are doing something outdoors and taking in the scenery. It’s different from the silence when you are supposed to be falling asleep or the silence before a concert or play begins. It’s the silence when just observing is a higher priority than discussing.It turned out that the officials at the ballpark did decide to call a rain cancellation, after we’d been sitting in our seats for nearly an hour. I never had a chance to find out whether the mom behind me really would have chattered to her child for the entire game or whether eventually a companionable silence might have settled. And of course, I don’t know that my way is the right way. Maybe my children, accustomed to occasionally just observing scenes in silence, whether on a run or at the ballfield, will in the end turn out to be less intelligent than this woman’s child, as he experiences life through a continuous narration loop.

But my children are now 8 and 12, and both are good at sitting quietly, whether they are reading or looking out the window on a car ride or taking a walk through the woods. And I value that in them. The fact that I’m able to share silence with my children is something I treasure. And maybe the woman at the ballpark will learn that she, too, can pause for air and just let the silence envelop her and her child.

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