As a parent, I used to be suspicious of silence. If I wasn’t hearing sounds from the next room, I would wonder what was up. Was my eldest taking apart her computer again? (She liked to see how it worked.) Was my youngest liberating the gerbil? (He wanted Bobbin to have more space to run.) Silence felt ominous, like the calm before a parenting storm.
I still worry about my children turning down the volume when they don’t want me to know what they are doing. But I’ve learned that true silence – the quieting of external and internal noise – is good for kids. It opens up space for reflection and discovery, and helps children make sense of the world around them.
Professor Luke Burgis studies how the constant streaming of information affects people. He has found that being overwhelmed by content can make it hard to pay attention to what matters. Our eyes and ears are bombarded non-stop with images, ideas and data. Children (and adults) can get sucked into an information whirlwind and may not be able to pull themselves out.
Burgis suggests that spending time in silence helps us step outside the data storm and let what we’ve encountered sink in. When children take a deep breath and wonder where information comes from and what it might mean, they connect with ideas and images in a more thoughtful way. They notice the gaps and biases in some claims and the persuasive details in others.
Practices of silence also encourage children to consider the embodied people behind the rhetoric. They can ask themselves questions like “Who created this ad for a CoComelon doll and what is its purpose?”, “Where did this person get their information about climate change?”, and “How can I learn more about the people who run this human rights organization?” Even young children can be prompted to wonder about the people behind the magic of their favorite shows and games.
Burgis also notes that it can be hard to make time for silence because listening to a lot of voices is more likely to prompt a desire to speak rather than retreat into silence. Humans are primed to engage as we see others engaging. We can help children explore the value of stopping to reflect before adding yet another reaction to the mix. We can encourage them to take time to figure out what something means and how it affects them.
Offering children structured ways to stop and reflect silently also encourages intellectual humility. It’s a reminder that we don’t know everything and can easily make mistakes if we accept misinformation or exaggerations as facts. Suggest that kids pause regularly to quiet their minds through deep breathing and then pick one thing they’ve recently seen or heard that they want to ponder more carefully for 5 minutes or so. Encourage them to wonder what it means, whether it is true, and how they know. They can then decide to take up or challenge the idea, depending upon their assessment. Or they can dive back into the information pool to gather more data about the topic.