Silence Is Golden

Louise Hartley laments the erosion in social mores, and finds a trip to the ballet with her children an extremely exasperating excursion.

It was my children’s first trip to the ballet. As we found our seats, I explained to them the importance of being quiet and not banging their seats up and down. “A children’s performance. Wonderful!” said the well-spoken grandmother seating herself in the row behind us. “Does that mean I can talk all the way through?”

Oh dear. This does not bode well. A little girl settled in beside me and spotted the baby on my knee. “He’s so cute,” she gushed. “How old is he?” “Three months,” I replied as the lights dimmed, hoping her mum would ask her to be quiet. The curtains opened. “Mummy, look at the lovely baby,” she announced loudly. “Isn’t he cute?” Surely someone will tell her to be quiet, I thought. How wrong I was.

As the music started and Angelina Ballerina pirouetted onto the stage, I noticed half the children (and adults) in the audience were still gabbing at full tilt. It couldn’t be that hard to keep quiet for 70 minutes could it? They even break up the performance with a 15-minute interval when you can natter as much as you want.

Next to me, my three year old knew the drill. She sat in silence, occasionally tugging on my sleeve and pressing her lips to my ear to whisper, “More chips please”. But all around us the rabble chattered on. I’m sure that about five minutes into the performance the sound engineer turned up the volume so the music could be heard above the din.

Maybe I’m just out of touch. Is it not the done thing any more to tell your children to be quiet?

Perhaps parents lack the confidence. “The trouble is,” said a friend as I whinged post-ballet, “most parents are too timid to tell their children off for doing something all the parents around them are letting their kids do. No-one wants to be the only one saying ‘shush’.” “Why, not?” I asked. “I was.” “Yes,” she said, “but not everyone’s as confident as you.”

I guess I’m lucky that when my first child was a toddler, an older, more experienced friend listened to me struggling to hold a conversation thanks to my son’s constant interruptions. “Just tell him Mummy’s talking and he needs to be quiet for five minutes,” she said. “I know I should,” I said, “but I don’t want him to feel like he’s not being heard.” “Oh, for goodness sake,” she said, “you’re the most attentive parent I know. It will do him good to learn there’s something he can do for you for once. His reward will be that he gets your full attention later.”

I’ve always remembered that. Being quiet is a kindness you do for other people. My children are not perfect. They are well versed in the four major rude-word groups: body parts, other words for poo, words that must never be said in front of Nanny and words (like ‘balls’) that are only sometimes rude. There are days with seven-year-old Sam when I find myself wondering whether it is possible to be literally talked to death.

But there are times when he disappears into silence. I’ll wander around the house searching for him and find him reading or drawing. He doesn’t hear me calling his name. He is completely absorbed in the moment. He has already learnt that for his brain to be fully engaged his mouth needs to be closed.

You can get lost in a book, film or a play – staring at the pictures or watching a dance. But you can’t lose yourself if you’re listening to a running commentary. That’s what it was like at the ballet. Granny behind us kept interjecting: “Is that the naughty mouse? He looks like he’s up to no good. What do you think?” “What dance style is this now?” “Gosh, I wonder whether Angelina’s going to make it through the audition?”

I wondered whether I was going to make it through the performance.

It doesn’t hurt for a child to learn when to take their turn, be it during play or conversation. It’s an essential life skill.

My husband, who has five children, has learnt to be refreshingly direct about his need for five minutes’ peace. One Saturday morning, Sam wandered up to me asking for help with something. “Can’t you ask Dad?” I said. “No,” said Sam. “He told us we’re not allowed to talk to him unless we’re bleeding.”