Silence Is a Scary Sound For Parents

As much as I love the sound of silence in my house, I've learned just what toddlers are capable of once you can't hear them.

illustration of home scene with father relaxing on couch while kids make ketchup angels on floor and flood bathroom
Photo: Illustration by Nathan Hackett

I walked in on my 2-year-old daughter Aspen silently cramming full rolls of toilet paper into the toilet, smashing them down with a toy broom, and repeatedly flushing. There was at least an inch of water on the floor. The colorful fish-shaped bath mat was floating a bit, along with some bath toys and a bottle of shampoo. Her red dress, white leggings, blonde hair in spindly pigtails, all of her, was soaked in toilet water. I stepped into the water for a moment, barefoot, felt how cold it was, and then stepped back into the hallway. Aspen looked at me. She didn’t smile, or laugh, or speak. She just stopped what she was doing for a moment, made eye contact, and then went back to business, her face void of regret or joy or fear of reprisal, similar to the Terminator.

I cussed under my breath, then I waded into the restroom, pulled her away from the toilet, and said something that is the refrain of parenting: “I knew it was too quiet.” As a father of toddlers, I’d learned to fear quiet.

It was quiet the day Tristan took his Home Depot toy handsaw to my eyeglasses, busting out the lenses. It took me two weeks to get in with an optometrist because of our crappy insurance, so I couldn’t drive and had to ride my bike half blind, struggling to make out bumps, and cars, and how close I was to people. I spilled out on the road a number of times and once waved and yelled excitedly to some girl I didn’t know but thought was my wife, only for her to call campus police on me.

It was quiet the day Norah monkeyed open the refrigerator lock and pulled out a bottle of ketchup, squeezed it out on the floor, then rolled around in it, making condiment angels. And what did she do when I entered the room and caught her—ahem—red-handed? (See what I did there?) She slipped and fell and bumped her head, and I ended up comforting her, soaking my jeans and T-shirt in ketchup, a condiment I don’t enjoy because the smell makes me gag, the whole time looking at the mess and wondering who was going to comfort me.

It was quiet when my son slid his toy box into the bathroom, stood on it to get to the sink, plugged it, pumped all the hand soap into the sink, and filled it with water, overflowing it with bubbles. It was silent the day Aspen drank a small sample of dish soap that she fished from the garbage can. (She had diarrhea for three days.) It was quiet when Norah snagged a full can of Pepsi from the pantry and threw it against the kitchen tile, making it rain cola and dancing as it showered down on her.

I know. I know. This sounds like a list of grievances, and in some ways it is. Raising toddlers is basically one big list of grievances. But there really are two things that unite these moments: toddlers and silence.

Silence is scary. If my toddlers were silent, I expected them to be covered with peanut butter. I expected them to have broken my new iPhone, which happened to belong to my employer. I expected them to be examining the dog’s anus.

But the really hard part, the part that makes me want to wretch as a parent, is how bad I long for silence. I want my children to be quiet like the Sahara wants water. So when it happens, it’s almost difficult not to savor it. I sit and listen to it and hope that it will last forever—and rarely is my first instinct to assume that my child is up to no good, regardless of past experiences or logic, because the silence is so savory. This is the toddler trap. They filled my world with noise and chaos so that silence was as hypnotic as a siren’s song, so that the moment I heard it I’d fall into a trance while my toddler was destroying everything I loved, along with themselves, in a symphony of destruction. Was that too dramatic? Perhaps it was. I’ve just been scarred. I’ve seen some things. But the best (worst) part is this...because, you know, toddlers.

Remember that story I told you about Aspen and the clogged toilet? Well, there’s more. I picked up my daughter, twisted the water valve for the toilet, my face red and angry and ready for blood. And Aspen? She cried. She got all red-faced too, and I said, “Yeah. You should be crying. You’re in trouble.” I put her in her room and changed her, then put down some towels in the bathroom and unclogged the toilet by fishing the toilet paper rolls out with my hands. Aspen cried the whole time.

And then, once it was all settled and she was sitting next to me on the sofa while I was telling her that what she did was naughty, she stopped crying, and she nuzzled up into my chest, and she hugged me. She was quiet then too. And you know what I did? My shoulders slumped, my head went down, and I wrapped my arms around my little girl. Then I let out a breath and (get this) said, “I’m sorry I got so mad. Please don’t do that again.” Then we sat on the sofa and snuggled for a bit. I got played. I’ll admit it. It happens time and time again with my children. But as I sat there silently snuggling with my youngest daughter, I thought about how quiet it was, and how maybe, just maybe, silence isn’t all bad.

Silence is a Scary Sound

Reprinted with permission from Silence is a Scary Sound by Clint Edwards, Page Street Publishing Co. 2019.

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