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Can You Break Your Shushing Habit?

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


One of my sons’ families recently moved from a second-floor condo (in a three-level building) to a single family home. My daughter-in-law told me she’s noticed how relieved she is to not have to constantly “shush” her children, ages 4 and 10. Now that there’s no one to disturb in a unit above, in a unit below, or in a unit to the side, she feels she can finally let go and let her kids be kids.

A widely-distributed blog post this week addressed the same issue. The author makes the point that children naturally are loud. Trying to make them be quiet is frustrating… for everyone.

So here’s a challenge: take note of how many times during a day you shush your kids. Is being quiet the most important thing in your family, at least as measured by how many times it’s reinforced? You might be surprised by how frequently you shush.

In more formal times, the maxim “children should be seen and not heard” described ideal behavior. Children were expected to not to speak at all unless they were spoken to. But in a free society, shushing a child seems downright un-American.

Keep in mind that learning to talk requires not just listening to others (though that’s important) but practicing speech by talking too. Children who are inhibited from talking may have smaller vocabularies and smaller command of grammar and pronunciation, and they may be overshadowed in school by their more vocal classmates. We cannot have it both ways: we can’t ask kids constantly to be quiet then cajole them to “speak up!”

In addition, silencing our children silences more than their voices. It silences their opinions as well. The ability to think through problems and negotiate conflict requires freedom to speak one’s mind in a coherent argument. This is especially true when the speaker is younger and less capable than other people in the room, or when some groups of children (girls, for example) are shushed more than others.

Finally, keeping children quiet teaches them to “play small.” It makes being less-than a habit. Parents who are eager for their children to stand out can start by letting them speak out.

This isn’t to say that children have to yell all the time. Here are some suggestions that might make shushing a thing of the past in your house:

  1. Model what you want to hear. If you yell, your kids will yell, just to be heard. Instead of upping your volume to carry your voice over the din, speak more quietly. This means also to avoid calling loudly up the stairs… go to where the person is to speak with him.
  2. Turn down or turn off competing sounds. If the TV is always on, if video games or music is played at max volume, or if the dog barks constantly, kids will have to yell to be heard. Turn things off and train the dog.
  3. Get outside. What’s the point of having an “outside voice” if you never get a chance to use it? Make certain your children get outdoors every day and don’t make them be quiet when they run around and play.
  4. Listen to your children. Sometimes kids get loud just to get your attention. Don’t be too busy to listen, to admire, and to interact with them.
  5. Teach volume control. If you’re modeling your best indoor voice, your children will have an easier time knowing what speaking “normally” is. But they still will need to know – in a nice way – when they are speaking too loudly for the situation. Try suggesting, in a near-whisper, “Speak only to me” when your child is declaring things at the top of her lungs.

No one likes to be shushed. But we parents shush an awful lot. See if you can break – or at least reduce – your own impulse to shush.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.