The Incredible Power of the Whisper
[Reprinted from Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a whisper is worth two thousand when it comes to parenting. In the same way that the instinctive human reaction to someone raising their voice is to raise our voice one octave higher, to out-shout the shouter, to over-power the person powering-up on us, the instinctive human response to someone whispering is to quiet down, to lean-in, to listen.
As parents, it’s up to us to exercise the wisdom and maturity to control our own instinctive reaction to our children’s piercing screams, ear-shattering shrieks, and mind-blowing, foot-stomping, out-of-control fits. Small people have big emotions and need help processing them. Their cries as babies and shrieks and tantrums as toddlers and meltdowns as preschoolers are, literally, cries for help.
Ignoring or punishing them, or reacting with anger ourselves, simply forces them to bury their unresolved emotions and causes us to miss an opportunity to not only share our wisdom by helping them process their big feelings, but also to guide our children toward more appropriate ways to communicate as they grow. In some cases, when a child’s emotions are forced underground it results in a child who simmers with hidden rage just waiting to explode again or, worse, the rage may turn inward and result in a child who is withdrawn, detached, or even depressed.
Having parenting tools ready and waiting for the inevitable challenges of raising little humans is wise. When emotions begin running high, and as parents we can feel our own stress levels rising, knowing we have a well-stocked parenting toolbox with tried and tested tools helps us to keep our cool so that we can parent more intentionally and effectively.
In the first weeks of life, a baby has one ‘default’ mode of verbal communication…crying. They may give physical cues to their needs such as chewing on their hands to indicate hunger or the beginning of teething, but their verbal communication takes the sole form of crying.
From those first tiny squeaks and mewls of a newborn, a baby’s cries mature into whimpers, squeals, screams, and sobs, all communicating one thing: “I need help.” When we respond to our baby’s cries quickly and gently, whether it’s to feed them or change them or give them a cuddle, we communicate in return, “I’m here. You can count on me.”
But then there are those times when we’ve fed them, changed them, burped them, rocked and cuddled and walked with them, and their piercing screams still shatter the silence…and our hearts. Those are times when parents often begin to feel overwhelmed, stressed, sometimes even resentful and angry because no matter what they try, they can’t ‘fix’ their baby and make them stop crying. It is in those moments of frustration and distress that we need to breathe in deeply to calm ourselves, then stop stressing over trying to ‘fix’ our baby and instead whisper in our little one’s ear, “I’m here. I’ve got you. We’ll get through this together.” They may not understand our words, but they will hear our heart.
The truth is that a baby’s cries can’t always be ‘fixed’ and sometimes the need they’re communicating is the need to express their emotions, but they always, always need the comfort and assurance that they will be heard and that their needs will be met and that they can trust us to be there for them, no matter what.
Once a baby reaches the crawling, exploring, discovering stage, they often have a great time experimenting with the volume, pitch, and range of their voice, much to the chagrin of their parents and pretty much everyone else within earshot. The ear-shattering squeals and bellows and joyful shrieks at this stage can be disconcerting to us parents, to say the least, especially when our little falsetto performs their operatic interpretation in public places such as doctor’s offices, libraries, and restaurants.
This is a prime opportunity to exercise the power of the whisper. When the first shriek splits the silence, we can hold our finger to our lips, smile like we’re inviting them to join in on a secret, and whisper, “It’s whisper time. Let’s use our little voices together.” Making a game out of it invites cooperation rather than demands obedience, a much more effective parenting technique, and practicing little voices together demonstrates what we want our little one to do instead of simply telling them what we don’t want them to do.
Don’t be surprised if it takes many repetitions over several outings before your little one begins to get the idea, though. As with all parenting, time and patience and an awareness (and acceptance!) of what is normal for each developmental stage is key.
Toddlers and preschoolers are famous for their big tantrums sparked by big emotions and big frustrations. Obviously being aware of and avoiding tantrum triggers such as hunger, tiredness, and over-stimulation is important. But even with the most proactive parenting, there may still be times when our little ones have unexpected, incomprehensible, inconsolable tantrums.
When faced with a toddler or preschooler in the throes of a tantrum, if we know what caused the tantrum, we can validate the emotion with a soft-voiced, “You’re angry (disappointed, sad, hurt) because you (fill in the blank).” Often just hearing their feelings put into words is enough to calm a toddler who is frustrated at their inability to express themselves, but sometimes they need a bit of time and support to work through their big emotions.
If the tantrum continues we need to stay calm and present and remember that we are modeling self-control and self-regulation when we practice those skills instead of having an adult-style tantrum in response to our child’s tantrum. Instead of trying to control our child’s outburst with demands or threats or bribes, we can simply stay close and whisper, “I hear you. I’m here.”
The secret of the whisper in taming a tantrum can be seen in the difference between dumping a bucket of water on a fire, which can force the fire underground where it may smolder and reignite unexpectedly, versus spraying a gentle mist on the fire so it’s slowly and fully extinguished, leaving the ground saturated so the fire won’t reignite. Settling your little one quietly and patiently with a whisper is the gentle mist that saturates them with your unconditional love and support so they don’t simmer with hidden rage that may erupt spontaneously again.
Remember, no matter the problem, kindness is always the right response. When your child is having a problem, stop, listen, then respond to the need, not the behavior. The behavior can be addressed later, after the need has been met, because only then is the door to effective communication truly open.
The thing to keep in mind is that there is no cure for childhood. There is no parenting secret that will ‘work’ to keep children from being children. Children will cry. They will tantrum. They will yell and giggle and climb and run and throw things and build things and hit and hug and explore and make glorious mistakes and incredible discoveries. They will be human. They will be children. And that’s more than okay. That’s beautiful, messy, wonderful childhood, just as it should be.
Parents are guides through the incredible journey of childhood, not to keep their children from experiencing childhood, but to keep them safe as they learn the magnificent life lessons that childhood has to offer.
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.