If I were to give this article a clickbait headline, it would be, “An introvert parent controlled his six children’s noise levels with one simple rule.”
The family meal is as American as apple pie, which incidentally is exactly what we hope to receive at the end of one. It’s a time to be together and to eat together, but not in silence. The true beauty of the family meal is the opportunity it gives us to communicate with one another. Father Leo Patalinghug’s Grace Before Meals movement is built on the idea that “the simple act of creating and sharing a meal can strengthen all kinds of relationships.”
But when you’re the father of six children, all of them nine-years-old or younger, you don’t get a lot of communication during dinner. You get a lot of crosstalk and noise. The volume of the voices sometimes is the problem, but usually not. The problem is usually quantity. Dearest Sons 1 and 2 are talking about Pokemon, complete with sound effects. Dearest Daughter 2 is singing at the top of her lungs (and not eating). Dearest Son 3 is bellowing loudly about how his food is yucky, which makes Dearest Wife, who worked very hard to make the meal, more and more frustrated. Dearest Daughter 3 is climbing down from her seat to sit in her mother’s lap. And Dearest Daughter 1, like me, just wants to run away from the table and escape to somewhere quiet, like solitary confinement in a federal penitentiary. With young children, a regular family meal can be a raucous dinner party every night.
Some families thrive on this. If you need an example, go watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But what about a highly introverted person, like me? In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain discusses the research of developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan into “high-reactive” types, people whose brains easily overload on dopamine and thus find themselves easily overstimulated. Dr. Elaine Aron has conducted extensive research into what she calls “highly-sensitive persons” (which I also am), people who are easily overwhelmed by bright lights or loud sounds. In her book The Introvert Advantage, Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., describes a similar situation and reaction: “Peter, an introvert, is going to a museum, looking forward to seeing his favorite Monet. As he enters the museum, which is not crowded, he feels overwhelmed; he reduces his focus immediately, perhaps without even realizing it.”
It isn’t just that we’d prefer a quiet meal in which the only sounds are the clinking of silverware and some soft Vivaldi music. It’s that when we encounter a situation in which numerous voices are talking over one another, our brains overload on all the stimulation, and we shut down, like a circuit breaker disrupting an overpowered electrical line. Self-imposed isolation from your own family isn’t something any of us wants, no matter what the internet cliche of the “Just leave me alone, everyone!” introvert might make some people think. So what’s an introvert parent to do?
My wife Rose and I have many rules for our children, but they’re all pretty standard stuff, like don’t hit your siblings, be excellent to one another, and don’t stick forks up your nose. We also have three special rules, each one important enough to be numbered. Rule #1 is “obey us the first time.” We’re not tyrants, we just want to teach our kids a proper sense of obedience and trust towards their parents. Rule #2 is “let Mommy get her sleep,” and you can read more about that one when my wife starts writing articles about being an “I Really Need My Sleep” Parent.
Rule #3 is “one person speaks at a time.” It’s pretty self-explanatory. It means when we’re all gathered together, everyone takes turns speaking. We don’t talk over one another. We don’t hold multiple conversations simultaneously. We listen, and we don’t just wait to talk.
And it works. It works so well. The two main benefits are:
- Quiet at the dinner table. Not silence, but quiet. Although we are eight, only one of us is speaking at any one time. The noise level goes from “wild, crowded party” to “pleasant conversation with the closest of friends.” Bliss!
- Perhaps a less obvious benefit: it slows the pace of the conversation. This is essential to my introvert-wired brain with its “long, slow acetylcholine pathway” as Laney puts it. I can keep track of one conversation. I get tired, frustrated, and eventually angry when I have to track three at the same time.
Knowing the rule and living it are two separate things
Rule #3 works so well and so wonderfully, you’d think there was nothing wrong with it. But there is. It has a single drawback, and it’s a huge one: the children don’t obey it. At least not all the time. But honestly, I’d be a little worried if they did constantly follow it. They’re all under ten-years-old, after all. They’re supposed to be wild little gremlins.
Since it’s against the nature of young children and toddlers to carry out a civil one-person-speaks-at-a-time conversation, there are a few techniques I’ve learned for helping them to follow Rule #3. First, it’s a big help if you or your spouse can “hold court” at the table. It will go against every fiber of your introvert self, but you have to make yourself the focus of attention. You’re going to have to be the moderator.
If you work a day job, apply some of your corporate experience here. We’ve all attended meetings that aren’t truly exchanges of ideas, but are instead ceremonies, right? Usually, the ceremony involves the meeting organizer going around the table, calling on participants one at a time to give their reports. This is one of the worst uses of your time in corporate America, it is an abuse of a meeting, it is an email or instant message or 1-on-1 conversation forced into the context of a team meeting merely for the convenience of a supervisor. But in the context of a parent controlling the conversation to keep it from erupting into noisy chaos, it’s perfect! Give each child a chance to say something about his or her day, or to tell a story or a joke, whatever works best. In our family, I often ask, “Who has a kindness to report?” and we swap stories of kind acts we did for others that day or kind acts others did for us.
While Rule #3 was born as a way to make me want to not run and hide every time the dinner bell rang, it doesn’t have to apply solely to meal times. It works any other time you and your family are together and the conversation is at risk of becoming a free-for-all. This might be in the car, or even just while sitting around the living room together on a lazy Sunday.
It also bears mentioning that there are ways to apply Rule #3 in a way that can steer the family activity away from conversation completely. What if the one person speaking is reading a book to the family? What if the one “person” speaking is the television, while everyone enjoys a show or a film together? Suddenly, your family is sharing in an activity you likely love, and in a way that combines a low level of stimulation with a high level of family togetherness.
A balancing of needs
Finally, never lose sight of the fact that your children won’t stick to Rule #3 forever not just because it’s in their nature as children not to, but that it may be in their nature as themselves not to. Their needs may very well be different than yours. They might be extroverts or ambiverts who need some extroverted time. They, or your spouse, may thrive on a boisterous conversation: the louder and the more people talking at once, the better. Five separate conversations going back-and-forth across the dinner table, mixed together with compliments to the chef and requests to pass the mashed potatoes, may absolutely energize someone else, even while it sucks you dry. And that’s OK!
A few paragraphs ago I disparaged the internet cliche of the “Just leave me alone, everyone!” introvert, but cliches often exist for a reason. We don’t like to talk about it much, but I believe introverts’ tendency to focus on our inner world can tip the wrong direction and slide towards selfishness. I know it can in me.
Find the right balance. Give your kids the time they need to be loud. Let them shout and giggle and make funny voices and tell silly jokes. Let all six of them do it at the same time, to the point that you honestly don’t know who is listening to who. I try to do this as much as I can, but when it just gets to be too much, I raise three fingers and wait for everyone to notice the silent reminder I’m giving them: remember Rule #3. Let’s talk, let’s communicate, let’s share our news and our hopes and our dreams and our fears.
Let’s just take turns doing it one at a time.