Better Parenting Through Silence

These two videos happen to speak to the same massive question at the heart of parenting: how do you help your kid succeed at something new and difficult and scary?

In the first video, Natalie is trying to learn to ride a bike. Her dad wants to help. Things <cough> don’t go particularly well.

Why? From the first moment of the exchange, the dad is trying to take command of the situation. He keeps saying her name (“Natalie! Look at you! You’re doing it!  We’re gonna keep going around the block! Keep going!”). Even when it’s abundantly clear Natalie is having none of it, the dad keeps up.

He’s doing what we’ve all done: trying to nudge, persuade, cajole a kid past the difficulty using language and emotion. He’s trying to create success by narrating success. Meltdown ensues.

Contrast that approach with this video of a father and a four-year-old kid taking on another biking challenge. Here, the interaction is completely different. The kid is in the position of control, not the parent. You can see it from the first moment, where the father doesn’t tell the kid what’s going to happen — instead, he asks a question.

DAD: Oh, I’m first?

KID: You’re first.

DAD:  Okay.

Instead of narrating the process, this dad is almost entirely silent, except for the occasional praise for the effort (“Good work, pal!”). The messages are implied, not spoken — follow me… this is fun… I’m right here.

This silence creates something vital, because it allows the kid to narrate the process, which he does beautifully: “I can do it just the same as the other guys now… Yeah, oh yeah, buddy.” We see it most vividly at 4:10, in the moment just after the kid wipes out. The dad doesn’t come to the rescue; he’s present, but he doesn’t say a word, except to ask if the kid is ready to go.

To sum up:

  • 1) Seek to put the kid in the position of control.
  • 2) Speak minimally and avoid commands; instead, ask questions that lead to action.
  • 3) When they encounter a problem, avoid rushing to the rescue. Create opportunities for resilience.

The larger point is, kids are smart. You can’t con them. To take on challenges they need to be in control. They need to be given the room and motivation to encounter the challenge honestly, and a parent’s role is to help create the conditions where that can happen — then to step back.