Children Should be Seen and Not Heard

We were at craft time in the library today coloring and pasting pictures of animals and geographical features on a cut-out of Africa. One of the animals was a tiger, which, if I’m not mistaken, lives in Asia. My kids didn’t mind, though, so I won’t make a big deal about it. I’ll just have to supplement their education about the continent of Africa on our own.

At the table next to us, a woman sat with her daughter, who I guessed to be about 3 years old. Her daughter was animatedly talking about the animals and the crayons she was using to color them.

“Do you hear anyone else yelling?” her mother hissed at her, loudly enough that I could easily hear her about five feet away. “You’re embarrassing yourself!

Her daughter looked up at her nonplussed and then went back to her coloring. She didn’t say anything over a whisper the rest of the time we were there.

Soon after the mother scolded her daughter, my son started talking loudly about the characters painted on the wall and which ones were wearing hats. He busted into the theme song to “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That” TV show on PBS, as I reflected on the other mother’s reaction to her child’s exuberance.

As someone who is naturally quiet and who was trained from birth to be even quieter (my parents were big fans of the adage, “Children should be seen and not heard, and seldom seen,” which they applied in conjunction with a witticism attributed to my maternal grandfather: “Every child deserves a pat on the back: often enough, hard enough, and low enough.”), I can relate to this other mother’s discomfort with her child’s noise level. My children seem wild and unruly to me, and they seem to have just one volume setting. I frequently find myself shushing them in public places so they don’t bother other people, even when none of the other people have indicated that they were bothered. And while I disagree with her technique of shaming her child into silence, I can’t say that I’ve not tried the same technique when my own discomfort with my children’s expression of happiness was too great. Let she who is without sin, right?

Just this morning, my friend Tucker shared a link to a 1992 essay by Barbara Kingsolver entitled, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby.” In it, Kingsolver reflects on the impatience and outright rudeness with which children are received in the United States, and contrasts that with how they’re received in Spain, where she was living at the time.

“For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do.

The essay brought me to tears thinking about the wide gap between how children should be welcomed in our culture and how they actually are (or aren’t).

I was at the library fresh from reading that essay, and it led me to wonder what had happened in this mother’s life to cause her to feel so embarrassed about her daughter’s volume of speech, particularly in a children’s activity on the children’s floor of the library with another little heathen-child belting out “You Are My Sunshine” just five feet away. If this is what our culture encourages us to do, I opt out. I reject the idea that my children should consider the comfort of strangers before expressing their happiness.

In the wake of this experience, along with my focus this month on sharing my own happiness, I’ve recommitted myself to allowing my children to express themselves in the manner that seems right to them, provided it truly isn’t hurting anyone else. As Gloria Steinem noted in a speech of hers I attended at Duke University many moons ago, we put up with so many other sounds in our environment—cell phones, airplanes, traffic, car alarms—the sounds of children shouldn’t bother us at all. In fact, they’re probably the most pleasant of the noises that interrupt our peace.

We all were children once. As adults, we may have chosen for whatever reason to squelch our own exuberance, but that doesn’t give us a right to diminish the joy of today’s children.

If anything, I want to learn from my children how to shine bright, not extinguish their glow.

12 Replies to “Children Should be Seen and Not Heard”

  1. I know this is an old post but I don’t think children should be allowed to yell at the top of their voice unless they’re outside. There’s a reason children are taught “inside voice” and “outside voice.” A three-year old doesn’t know that she’s in the crafts area of the library. She just knows she’s in the library. To allow her to speak loudly – I have to assume it was loud – anywhere inside the library would only confuse her. If she’s taught to whisper in the library, regardless of area, she’ll always whisper in the library.

    In addition, a child of three would have no understanding of “you’re embarrassing yourself.” She went strictly by the tone of her mother’s voice which, it had to be from experience, was caused by her not whispering. She was not shamed. She felt not guilt about her behavior. As you said, she was “nonplussed.” She kept talking, she just used her library voice from then on.

    While the mother could have said something nicer, I don’t see the harm in what she did. In my area, too many parents are unwilling to teach children how to use their “library” voice, which is quieter than their “inside” voice, and definitely quieter than their outside voice. I think maybe the incident struck a cord with you because of your upbringing and the shame/guilt associated with being told to be seen and not heard. Or maybe not. But for this interaction, I don’t see anything wrong.


    1. Thank you for your comment.

      To clarify, the child was not speaking loudly when her mother spoke to her (I heard the mother’s reprimand more clearly than I heard the child), and I felt that the venom with which her mother delivered the reprimand was not consistent with the infraction. And whether a three-year-old can understand “you’re embarrassing yourself” or not, the child will soon understand those words. In addition, the mother’s intention was clear: to shame the child into compliance. It worked, but what unintended message is the mother sending to her child with her words and her tone of voice?

      Our library is divided up so that the children’s section is on one floor and the “grown-ups” section is on another. In the children’s section, there are toys (trains, puzzles, building toys, etc) and computers and the children are expected to be noisy there. I’ve been on my own in the adult section upstairs and could hear the teen programs cheering and singing downstairs. No one reprimands them because it is expected for their age, this location, and the program underway that they be noisy. Frankly, even the adults are noisy in our library; it’s not a quiet zone by any stretch. I do agree with teaching children to be quieter in situations where quiet is expected from everyone. But in situations where children are expected to be noisy, it just doesn’t make any sense.


  2. I agree! There’s so much we put up with in this society. Asking other people to listen to our exuberant children is perfectly reasonable in my book.

    I think that shushing our kids is one of the first and most devastating steps on the path to turning them into boring adults. As a parent, I feel obligated to do everything that I can to preserve their childish magic.


  3. I agree. I’m constantly shocked by the intolerance for children and the sounds they make. I was at a special showing of “How to Train Your Dragon” last week. It was a matinee specifically for kids. There was a crying baby in the theatre and someone told the mother to please take the baby outside. This was a show for kids! I wish she had walked by me. I would have told her I thought she should stay, as I rocked my own baby to sleep in the aisle.

    On a side note, I would like to discuss with you how you are able to say things in your blog that might be viewed as less than positive about your upbringing. Have you experienced any negativity? How have you dealt with you decision to be so open about you parents?


    1. Perhaps I’ll blog about the upbringing-in-the-blog thing, but for now, the quick(ish) answer is that I’m pretty sure my parents don’t read my blog. And if they did, I’m pretty sure that everything I blog about is stuff I’ve already aired with them. They know I don’t agree with spanking and that I’m intentionally raising my kids differently from the way they raised us. I think they also know that I think the way they raised me, at least, wasn’t consistent with my temperament. They also know that I know they did the best they could, just as I’m doing the best I can, and that at the end of the day, I think they did a decent job.

      My parents have always made a point of being human beings. The idea was never that they were infallible, but simply that we were supposed to obey even if they were wrong because they’re the parents. With that perspective, my parents don’t seem to have much trouble with the criticism—both implied and overt—that I have for their parenting methods.

      I will mention, too, that while it might seem like I’m revealing a lot about myself in my blog posts, I don’t really feel that to be the case. There are a lot of things I don’t talk about and won’t talk about simply because they’re private and to talk about them would reveal more about me and my family than I’d like. I’ve written personal essays for a long time. So my parents are used to my writing and the things I choose to reveal, while at the same time, I think they understand that I’m not writing a tell-all account of my life. And I’m not doing it to be mean. These are parts of my life that I choose to share as I try to make sense of the world and offer a different perspective.

      I’m much more nervous about how they’d respond to my fiction than to my nonfiction.


      1. I don’t mean to take the focus away from your excellent post,(carefully saying even this) but, I also think seen-and-not-heard can continue into adulthood. In my family, the elders still feel public appearance is paramount and we should only speak through rose-colored gag-balls. I have to be cautious of what I say about my family because the slightest thing can become drama. I always assume someone who knows my family (and will report back to them) is reading every word I write. For example, in the Spank Out Day posts we wrote, there was some innocuous sentence about personal experience with less than positive punishments that caused a dust up.

        Anyway, I think, as you so eloquently point out, that it comes from uncomfortable experience handed down.


  4. I have to admit that my initial reaction to that article (Kingsolver’s) was “Thank god we’re getting out of this country for a while.” I’m just not strong enough to overcome the social pressure to silence my children in public. I can do it sometimes, and I am very self-critical when I don’t, but I am grateful to have the opportunity to live in parts of the world where children are esteemed for their youthful traits.


    1. It is difficult to live outside the norm all of the time, even when we’re doing what’s right for us and our families. After our misadventures with our church in Salt Lake City, I’m incredibly nervous when we try a new church as a family, especially since the ones here are so old and echo-y and I feel like my kids’ noise just reverberates all over the sanctuary. And trapped in a hotel room so much of the time, my kids are extra squirrely. Mostly people say how beautiful or adorable or sweet they are, so perhaps a lot of my self-consciousness originates within me rather than coming from outside.


  5. This is really something I need to work on. With four very energetic children, our volume level resides somewhere between loud rock concert and outright deafening. I think I am way more bothered by my own kids’ noise than other people’s.


    1. Oh, I definitely think that my kids sound louder to me than other people’s kids ever do. I also recognize that when someone complains about noisy kids or nursing in public, they most often represent a tiny minority of an otherwise accepting population. If only the accepting part of the population (of which I include myself) would more readily step in to defend and celebrate when kids act like kids.


  6. I agree! While it is important to teach our children social niceties, it is more important not to diminish their hearts and spirits. There was a loving way for the mother to make her child aware of her voice, one that would have respected the child’s enthusiasm while communicating a concern. Great post!


    1. I do agree that teaching children the ins and outs of social expectations is something parents need to do, but I would argue that a craft activity in the children’s section of the public library was an appropriate place for this little girl to feel free to speak up. Maybe I’ll recommend that the library staff play some music or something to encourage discussion and joyful noisemaking at future craft times.


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