On a recent plane trip, I witnessed a mother coaching her child through his first ever flight. He was about five-years-old; that magical age of curiosity and wonder.
From the departure lounge right through to the plane landing, the mother tutored her son.
"So, now we queue up and the flight attendant will scan these cards called boarding passes."
She talked him through finding his seat, while holding up a long line of passengers as she pointed out each aisle number. Aisle 15 couldn't have come quick enough. I had the bonus of sitting in aisle 14. What that also meant was despite wearing headphones and playing the movie at maximum volume, I shared this woman's constant commentary. Instead of being kicked in the back of the seat the entire fight, I felt like I was being kicked in the ears relentlessly for two hours.
"See how the plane speeds up as it takes off."
"Your ears may feel like they're popping, it's just the air pressure."
Don't get me wrong, I completely understand what this mum was trying to do. I've done it myself. Prepare the child for a new adventure, minimise the potential fear of the unknown, and manage expectations, all whilst seizing those golden "teachable moments".
Unfortunately, what all this talking tends to do is smother the child. The overload of information and the constant questions - "Can you see the airplane wing? That enables the plane to fly" - only serve to have the child tune out.
By talking incessantly as parents, we don't give our children any space to enquire. This child had no opportunity to ask questions that mattered to him because his mum had answered everything before he'd a chance. He finished up having a mini-tantrum because she was interrupting his exploration of the shiny screen gadgets in front of him with all her chitter chatter.
Let's cut to the chase: he wanted her to shut up. So did everyone in her vicinity.
In her quest to be the oracle of all knowledge, she became the fire blanket who suffocated his flame. Her desire to light his spark for learning instead became a wet towel. She was well-intentioned, as we all are. Her child will hardly be scarred by her care, interest and engagement, but sometimes as parents we need to learn the value of silence.
I once sat where the woman on the plane did (not literally in aisle 15, I mean metaphorically). My kids will tell you I can talk under a tonne of concrete, without taking a breath. All my offspring were early talkers, probably because there was constant babble in my house. But I have made the same mistakes this benevolent mother is making; I talked too much and sometimes, over the top of them.
At first, it was innocent: a five-minute warning before we left playgrounds so they were prepared for the inevitable departure (did it ever work? rarely!), then it was talking them through everything from grocery shopping to Lego building. It moved onto enquiries about their day at school that resulted in grunts and "we did nothing" that then escalated to demands from me for more detail from them. I had a verbal list of questions that started to feel more like an interrogation than a conversation.
None of this could be considered bad parenting, quite the opposite, but if you look at it from a kid's point of view, they are being talked AT all day!
My teenage son recently expressed – in full sentences, mind you – how much it annoyed him that I asked so many questions. About everything. It was too demanding, he said, after a full day of school, to come home and document his day when often, there was nothing new to report.
So, it's taken me thirteen years, but I've finally learned to back off and shut up. Not silent-treatment, sulky quiet, but a reflective silence that is fortified with the confidence that my children will come to me when they have something to say, a story to share or a question to ask. This has given my children breathing room. It's taken the pressure off.
My fear that not talking to them constantly could be misconstrued as a lack of interest was unsubstantiated. I learnt that I needed to be interested in the topics they tabled, rather than forcing knowledge and conversation down their necks. Now I've learnt to shut up, they come to me more often to chat.
Maybe the lovely mum on the plane will read this and give her son some breathing room too. Children are naturally inquisitive. Unless you ignore them altogether there is little risk they won't ask questions and explore new situations. Ride the adventure with them, just take a breath and let them talk too.