chatterbox

What Happened When I Found The Most Powerful Tool For Parenting

What I began to understand is silence was a kind of magic-making.

Asian girl with her mother brushing teeth in the bathroom
mixetto/E+/Getty Images

My daughter has inherited many things from me — my morning crabbiness, my singular worship of the almighty potato, my ability to smell anything rancid within a three-block radius (not so much a life skill, as a total burden). Recently, I’ve learned that she’s also inherited my habit of vivid sleep talking. Through the baby monitor I can’t quite get rid of yet, I can hear her muffled dream conversations: “That is not a suitcase. It’s a baby seal.” Then a giggle, and minutes later: “No, thank you, I don’t want to kiss the broccoli.”

We are talkers, my girl and me. Most of our days are spent chattering about what’s for dinner and gossiping about the kids at her school (“R.J. got in another fight with Alex and they had to sit on the mat facing each other!”). We love to discuss the stories of the past, like her first bee sting by the pool, or how daddy and I met. Conversation is how we connect; quality time is our love language. So it’s not a surprise that during moments of disagreement, we also try to talk our way through the conflict.

I was raised in a family where children were not allowed to have opinions, much less voice them, which predictably resulted in me swinging to the opposite side of the pendulum when it was time for me to raise my own daughter. When she protests anything — a bedtime, leaving a playdate early— my first instinct is to talk it out.

I say, “It’s time to go to bed, girlfriend.”

“Why?”

“If you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll be tired in the morning.”

“Why?”

“Because everyone needs rest for energy.”

“Why?”

And so on. No one knows the drawn-out purgatory of the why-loop like a parent. Sometimes I watch my husband, with his quick instincts and ability to shuttle her to the required destination with only a couple of words, and I think, “Must be nice.” There’s an efficiency to not talking that I sometimes envy. A clarity. I wondered what it would be like, for once, to just shut the heck up.

***

Outside my relationship with my daughter, my interactions with others are defined by conversation too. And most often, I’ll leap to fill in a void after a request, just to avoid that dreaded silence.

A neighbor texts, “Would you deliver granola bars to all the teachers today? No one in the PTO can do it.”

I have about ten deadlines to meet, and I’m running out of underwear from lack of clean laundry, but I still feel inclined to agree. In this way, my days fill with errands that aren’t mine.

In frustration, I reached out to a friend to vent: “It’s like my mouth just starts moving before I can stop it. The yesses fly out!”

“Or,” she said gently, “you could just … not say anything.”

“You mean: just stay silent?” I was incredulous.

“Why not? What’s the worst that could happen?”

“It’d be awkward as hell,” I say.

“More awkward than you having to do something you are resenting the whole time?”

So I tried it. Next time someone asked for something that overstepped my boundaries, I just … didn’t respond. This was not comfortable. I could feel my heart race in response to the awkwardness. But I held fast in my silence. I waited, biting my lip so my mouth wouldn’t start forming words I’d regret.

And, like a charm, the other person backed down. “Or, if you can’t, that’s okay too.”

It happened again and again. Silence was a kind of magic-making. It allowed the other person to reassess their request. It bought me time to think of my response and express myself in a way that was more profound than a half-hearted agreement. I don’t think of silence as conflict-avoidant — that, I will never be accused of being — but as a momentary return to a natural state of pause. An opportunity. I wondered if it would work in parenting as well as it did in other interactions.

***

A few days later: my daughter is hypnotized by The Octonauts. She sits on the floor in front of the television, mouth slightly agape, and in her eyes I see the pure joy of being swept up in something outside your reality. Then we hear the closing strains of the exit song, and see the flow of title credits. I reach for the remote.

No, Mama, no!” she cries, with the urgency of one who has just been maimed.

I shut off the television to the sound of protests about how unfair I’m being. My first instinct is to sit down across from her and explain why we only get a certain amount of shows in the day. I’d talk about balance and point out that the sunshine is so bright, and ask if she’d want to swing instead. But then I realize that we’ve had this conversation before — many, many times. So I’m not actually communicating anything new.

Instead of letting my words take over, I look at her in silence. I let her express what she needs to, but I don’t jump to fill the space with rationale she could recite in her sleep. My silence is not accompanied by a glare or any signs of disappointment. It’s just neutral. I count to five, then ten. Soon, I see something change in her too. Her face relaxes. She shrugs.

“Okay, let’s go put on our shoes,” she says.

Silence, as much as it benefits me, is also an opportunity for the other person — in this case, my daughter — to take a beat and reorganize their thoughts. She is given the space to reframe the situation herself, practicing a new independence and, I hope, sense of agency in knowing that she has control over her reactivity. In this world where we are constantly communicating (via texts, emails, shouted requests on the way out the door), what better solace is there than the gift of silence?

Of course, my daughter and I will continue to talk (and she, hopefully, will never stop that delightful sleep-talking). There will be bigger issues that need discussion — world events and crushes and heartbreaking fights with friends — and we will always need the comfort of one another’s words. But, in situations where the words are played out and all-too-familiar, we can reach for another tool in our kit, one that offers us both the grace to reconsider and reframe.

Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.