The One Thing Your Kid Needs—and Isn’t Getting

It’s quiet. Plain, simple, boring, vanilla-flavored quiet. How do you help them turn off the noise of their lives? And why is it so crucial? Here’s some sound advice.

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Photo by Mint Images - Paul Edmondson/Getty Images

If you are a parent, the thought of an hour of quiet—no volume-challenged toddlers, no barking dogs, no dinging cell phone—sounds heavenly. Your kids might feel differently. (No dinging cell phone? Ugh.) But whether they are 6 or 16, they can benefit from a break from the constant din of modern life. In her landmark research from 1975, environmental psychologist Arline Bronzaft, Ph.D., found that the reading scores of elementary students in classrooms located next to train tracks lagged a full year behind their peers in quieter classrooms on the other side of the building. “Noise makes it more difficult to learn,” says Bronzaft. “When you can’t stop noise, it can create incredible stress. Learned helplessness—the feeling that you just have to sit there and take it—sets in and can increase stress more.” And a 2012 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that it was harder for subjects to remember simple sequences of recorded numbers (normally an easy task) when they had to strain to hear them. Researchers theorize that may be because the part of the brain that processes auditory signals is the same one that handles short-term memory. Quiet also, not surprisingly, encourages reflection. “The brain works in networks that are in balance with each other,” says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Ed.D., a professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. “One allows you to focus on what is happening in the outside world around you, the other looks inward.” It’s this inner network that helps us make meaning of our lives.

Young Children

Why they need quiet
Research shows that even moderate background noise can interfere with the ability of babies to learn new words. And a 2014 study published in Nature noted that baby mice exposed to moderate, persistent noise for 10 hours a day had a 70 percent reduction in the formation of blood vessels in their brains compared with those in quiet cages. Elementary-age kids spend seven or more hours a day in the cacophony of school. “Everything that comes in through the senses needs to be processed,” says Victoria Dunckley, an integrative psychiatrist in Los Angeles and the author of Reset Your Child’s Brain. “Dealing with constant input lowers the brain’s ability to work through emotions and make sense of what’s being learned.”

How to get it

Reduce background racket.
“Turn on music and dance with your kids, but then turn it off,” says Mandy Cerka Mroz, an audiologist in Red Wing, Minnesota, and the director of the consumer-information site HealthyHearing.com. “We think when a child is doing a puzzle, we should have some fun music on in the background. Just let him focus on the puzzle.” Don’t leave the TV on, even if it’s educational. And check your own volume. “If you have to talk louder than normal to get kids’ attention, there’s something you are competing with,” says Mroz. Turn off the blender to ask your son to set the table rather than adding more noise by yelling.

Institute a daily quiet time.
You know that once little kids give up a nap (condolences), they still benefit from an hour of quiet time—dim lights, a few books. But older kids who have been in a noisy environment (like basketball practice) also need 30 minutes or so to recover, mentally and physically. Noise over 85 decibels, about the level of a garbage disposal, may harm hearing with prolonged exposure. “The tiny sensors in our ears called hair cells get blown down by vibrations. In quiet, they will bounce back,” says Mroz. (Picture grass that has been trampled but that springs up again given time.)

Try mindfulness together.
Bringing attention back to the present instead of worrying about a spelling test can be a good stress reducer, says Amy Saltzman, M.D., the author of A Still Quiet Place for Children. Simply sit together and listen for three minutes to all the sounds that you can hear—nearby, faraway, and inside your own body (heartbeat, breath)—plus the “silence between and underneath all sounds,” says Saltzman. For toddlers, try a simple yoga move—child’s pose!—to encourage calm, says Dunckley.

Teenagers

Why they need quiet
Many teenagers have sprouted new permanent body parts—headphones. At the same time, at this stage of development, adolescent brain circuits are being remodeled and becoming more specialized. Could it be a perfect storm? “We are potentially growing a generation of brains that are wired to focus on external stimulation rather than reflecting inward. Quiet time away from the constant stimulation can strengthen that internal focus,” says Immordino-Yang.

How to get it

Enforce device-free times.
Sure, you’ve heard it before, but ever multiplying gadgets are a major source of noise and distraction for teens. Set specific rules to maintain oases of quiet, says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist at the U.C. Berkeley Greater Good Science Center and author of The Sweet Spot. “Teens need bright lines,” she explains. “ ‘Your phones are never allowed in the dining room, the kitchen, or the bathroom. Half an hour before bedtime, all the devices have to be in the charging station where we can see them.’ ” Be clear about the consequences: “If we find you using your phone in bed, you lose it for 48 hours.” (And be sure to follow the house rules yourself.) Consider following a 60/60 rule: No more than 60 minutes of listening to an iPod at a time at no more than 60 percent of maximum volume.

Dare to not talk.
You know at this stage you need to keep the lines of communi­cation wide open. But that doesn’t mean that whenever you’re together you pepper your teen with tennis-practice logistics, grill him on his plans for the winter formal dance, or help him bone up on SAT words. “Teens often just want a parent to be there with them, particularly if they’re feeling moody. You don’t have to necessarily be saying anything or fixing anything in their lives,” says Dunckley. Chop vegetables for dinner in companionable silence. “Even with our own family members, not talking can feel uncomfortable at first. Eventually you will move through it and feel a sense of peace,” says Dunckley.