Better Parenting Through Silence


These two videos happen to speak to the same massive question at the heart of parenting: how do you help your kid succeed at something new and difficult and scary?

In the first video, Natalie is trying to learn to ride a bike. Her dad wants to help. Things <cough> don’t go particularly well.

Why? From the first moment of the exchange, the dad is trying to take command of the situation. He keeps saying her name (“Natalie! Look at you! You’re doing it!  We’re gonna keep going around the block! Keep going!”). Even when it’s abundantly clear Natalie is having none of it, the dad keeps up.

He’s doing what we’ve all done: trying to nudge, persuade, cajole a kid past the difficulty using language and emotion. He’s trying to create success by narrating success. Meltdown ensues.

Contrast that approach with this video of a father and a four-year-old kid taking on another biking challenge. Here, the interaction is completely different. The kid is in the position of control, not the parent. You can see it from the first moment, where the father doesn’t tell the kid what’s going to happen — instead, he asks a question.

DAD: Oh, I’m first?

KID: You’re first.

DAD:  Okay.

Instead of narrating the process, this dad is almost entirely silent, except for the occasional praise for the effort (“Good work, pal!”). The messages are implied, not spoken — follow me… this is fun… I’m right here.

This silence creates something vital, because it allows the kid to narrate the process, which he does beautifully: “I can do it just the same as the other guys now… Yeah, oh yeah, buddy.” We see it most vividly at 4:10, in the moment just after the kid wipes out. The dad doesn’t come to the rescue; he’s present, but he doesn’t say a word, except to ask if the kid is ready to go.

To sum up:

  • 1) Seek to put the kid in the position of control.
  • 2) Speak minimally and avoid commands; instead, ask questions that lead to action.
  • 3) When they encounter a problem, avoid rushing to the rescue. Create opportunities for resilience.

The larger point is, kids are smart. You can’t con them. To take on challenges they need to be in control. They need to be given the room and motivation to encounter the challenge honestly, and a parent’s role is to help create the conditions where that can happen — then to step back.

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8 Responses to “Better Parenting Through Silence”

  1. Anndee says:

    I love this and I am a coach and I couldn’t find this to be more true. I also think this helps with the brain processes of figure out, correcting and then working through challenges!

    I love your blog and am excited everyday when I come to work, hit the bookmark and see a new post!

    Thank you!

  2. pat says:

    As always another wonderful post with an intriguing perspective. And while there is much to be said about silence as a persuasive and supporting factor, I can’t help but notice that the kid in the second video seems much more eager and adventurous from the very get go. Keeep It Up. Pat

  3. Luis Mena says:

    Awesome the kid was allow to get out of the comfort zone
    by the time he mastered the skill was learned amaizing:)

  4. djcoyle says:

    Ain’t that the truth? I love how you can hear the father’s voice in the kid’s voice — when he talks to himself and says, “Yeah, buddy…” it feels like something the kid has heard a thousand times, and has now made it his own.

  5. James Carey says:

    I’m a subscriber to your blog and this is one of the best to date. I think your best posts are when you compare mistakes we’ve all made (I’m no parent but have coached) with a more positive result.

    But the positive result isn’t an immediate rewiring of an individual’s behavior, but instead the strengthening of new or less developed connections.

    You are a great writer Daniel and your best work focuses on human’s greatest trait, which is our malleability. Keep up the great work.

    P.S. The Secret Race was too good and too short.

  6. djcoyle says:

    Hey James, Thanks so much for the nice note and the great feedback — I really appreciate it, along with the kind words. I have to give my wife Jen credit here — whenever I’m tempted to wander into the forest of the science, she pulls me back to the better, wider path of the problems we all share (Woot-woot, Jen!).

  7. Chris says:

    Great post. This also applies to helping elderly parents adjust to their circumstances and learn new skills.

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