The Power of Silence

Posted January 9, 2018

by Amy Lemieux

Late last night, I heard our black lab crying from somewhere inside our house. I began opening doors, assuming he was trapped in a room. After much searching, it turned out he was sitting at the bottom of the stairs, imprisoned, because guarding the stairs was our round calico, silently forbidding him to pass. All our other pets (we have many) dislike being near this big, clumsy dog whose movements are exaggerated and too rough. Yet their loud, repeated protests do nothing to deter him from cozying up to them. It is the silent but incredibly communicative cat who finds success in “correcting” his behavior. Without a sound, her message to him is always loud and clear.

Quiet with a convincing message

How is this relevant to children? It reminds me of the effectiveness of minimizing our reactions rather than over-explaining, which to me is tempting to the point of being irresistible.  I overdo it with my own children all the time, and at the time am certain my many words are sinking deeply into their hearts and minds, filling them with wisdom only their mother can bestow. Sadly, a casual observer could set their watch by the amount of time it takes for their eyes to glaze over as my words float into oblivion. We have these children in our possession for such a short time; we must make use of every teachable moment. It is our duty and right as parents to constantly be teaching. Except it doesn’t work. When you want to correct a behavior, less is more.  A simple, “We don’t do that because….it hurts your friend…it makes a big mess…people don’t like that…it hurts my ears…” is enough words. Then move on.  The likelihood of them listening plummets with each additional sentence. A graph of their diminishing attention would resemble an Olympic ski slope.

Message received

Experts say that over-explaining is worse than not explaining anything at all. After all, how much attention do you really want to give to the behavior you don’t want to see again? A short and firm statement packs more punch than a dissertation that begins to resemble the teacher’s voice from Charlie Brown. And while I have an overwhelming desire to captivate everyone with the fascinating research about over-explaining, I will stick with this, “Over-explaining to young children doesn’t work.”