Indoor Voices Please

10 Jul

If you’ve ever been in earshot of a small person who has recently acquired language, you have no doubt heard (in your head or in your ears) the cry of; “indoor voices!” The ability to form complete sentences arrives prior to volume control; exemplifying Mother Nature’s sense of humor. There is a real reason for this of course. The awareness of the world around us comes incrementally. Babies begin to explore that world through their mouths (via milk or their own foot.) Others don’t exist beyond what they can do for the baby’s immediate needs. If you’ve ever seen two infants on a play date you can attest to this. Up until toddlerhood babies only engage in parallel play (def: playing side by side without direct interaction. ex: sharing a meal while both parties text others.) By preschool children have developed a sense of a world outside of their own home and needs. They understand that when they leave the zoo the animals don’t cease to exist. (This is why peek-a-boo is not such a mesmerizing game for this age group.) But it’s not until school-age that children have a fully formed sense of otherness.

At about 5 years old children are aware of others and how they differ from themselves. Gender becomes somewhat of a fascination as little boys and girls discover that some are fancy on the inside and some are fancy on the outside. (This is the age that is often cited as time to give different gendered children their own bedroom.) Children at this age learn to whisper and tell secrets (a clear indication of an awareness of others.) They learn, or are reminded, that there are behaviors that should remain private. Kindergarten teachers have spent more time than they care to consider telling little people to remove their fingers from noses, mouths or worse.

Historically, activities outside of school have existed to assist in socializing little people. Team sports, scouting, dance class and birthday parties traditionally began at this developmental stage. Beside the obvious life skills taught (how many times have you found yourself grateful for the skills of perfect turnout, bugling, or catching in your daily life?) what’s really being taught is group dynamics. Learning to work, play and live with others is the foundation of most structured activities. It is quite plausible that the average child spends thirteen years having these skills drummed reinforced on a daily basis. Some parents consider ‘socializing’ to be a top priority in their job description. You can see them guiding their little people in the ways of social graces and niceties. They are the ones dining out and instructing on how to sit, talk, order and eat. The child is learning that eating in the backseat of the car is not the same as eating in the presence of strangers. You can see these ‘lessons’ at museums, movies, theatres, libraries, or anywhere there are other people.

Whether it’s school, scouts or parents, or any combination thereof, there is consensus that childhood leads to adulthood, And with the right kind of guidance we hope to produce adults who will be; strong, confident, and kind. Yet with all these efforts to teach children how to interact with others, adults don’t always do such a gold star job in their own implementation. As you go through your day you will notice a lot of grown people using their outdoor voices (literally or figuratively.) Someone will have a conversation (with their phone or with a person in their physical presence) that will be loud and very personal. You will be subjected to gruesome details and possibly glared at for not having the ability to close your ears. (It’s as if by not wearing headphones you are now eschewing social mores.) You may be lucky enough to be enjoying a lovely meal in a beautiful restaurant. You are there not just for the food but for the specialness of it all. Then without warning there appears at the entrance a couple. The light shines from the open door behind them. You can see silhouettes only, wait they are stepping in, and there it is; baseball caps, shorts and sleeveless undershirts. Does the management have the right to refuse them? Probably. But only the snootiest of establishments feel they should/could. So you decide to start dining at home and save your money for the snootiest establishments. How about the theatre? Let’s try sitting up front in the most expensive seats. Surely people who have overpaid will have an appreciation of the specialness of the occasion? Unless by “specialness” you mean texting throughout the performance, or sipping a big gulp, then the answer would be no.

One explanation to at least the restaurant and theatre behavior is that we’ve all become terribly spoiled. We consider what was once “special” to be quite commonplace. We’ve had money or at least credit to spend and our definition of ‘bare essentials’ has expanded. But that doesn’t really explain wearing underwear as outerwear in places of worship or to stroll the streets. Increased standards of living don’t touch upon personal grooming in public or loud personal conversations in the presence of strangers. No doubt contagion and fashion is in play. As the volume around us increases, we are likely to raise our own voice. As style changes we are apt to discard and adopt accordingly. It can be exhausting to swim upstream day in and day out. It is risky to call out to strangers; “indoor voices, no touching, use your words, phones down, say; excuse me, thank you, please, you’re welcome.”   But there are times (more frequent than we possibly care to recognize) when we would relish a booming voice from above instructing us all to play well with others.

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Posted by on July 10, 2012 in Childhood, Cultural Critique


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