Monday, August 29, 2005

Hey, shut up.

This weekend, one of the last if not the last weekend of summer, my son remembered that he had to read a book for Honors English, and it had to be read before the term began, and he had to write an 800-word essay about it. We were in Idaho, where there are no bookstores (just kidding! but no bookstores within easy reach), so my husband, who happened to be driving up with my daughter and her husband a few hours from this belated realization, picked up a copy in Salt Lake.

The novel was The Chosen, by Chaim Potok in case you didn't know, a book I read when I was in my early college years. My husband started reading it on the way up and finished it on the way home (I'll let you guess how much my son "read," or perhaps you haven't met Spark Notes?). Anyway, between my husband's reading, and talking about it with him, which revived my own memory of the novel, and the conversation I had with my son as he was preparing to write his essay (oh, it can be done, and done well! I read the essay this morning--stellar performance), I have mulled over this question: what is the value of parental silence in raising children?

If you haven't read the novel, it's a father and son novel, with one son being raised by a radically orthodox Jewish father, the other being raised by an observant but less orthodox Jewish father. The two boys are friends. Anyway, the orthodox father, who is a rabbi, chooses to raise his son in silence, which means that he doesn't speak to the boy except when they are studying the Torah. He explains at the end of the novel that he knew his son had a brilliant mind but a heart and soul not capable of understanding suffering, and so, by raising the boy without conversation, he produces this suffering, which tempers the boy and makes him a more compassionate man.

Okay, on the face of it, this seems nuts and extreme. However, I found myself contemplating how much I have needed to learn to shut up as a parent. It's probably more along the pragmatic, "pick your battles," kind of silence, but I have learned (sometimes--other times, I'm sure I natter and nag on, accompanied by loud eye-rolling on the part of the relevant teen) to just be with the kid without talking. If the kid will let you be near, sometimes being near without saying much, or anything, is the best thing you can do.

For a variety of reasons, my son and I drove to Idaho alone, with the others coming a day later. We decided to pick several new CDs we wanted to hear and listen to them on the way up. It wasn't exactly silence, but the first disc on the Foo Fighter's In Your Honor gave us a lot to talk about, even though we barely said a word.


  1. I did a short film with Potok's son Akiva six years ago. He was a failing cinematographer then (and probably a twice-as-quit cinematographer now) and when I made the connection w/ his family name he clammed up and didn't really want to talk about his father. My friend M found a first edition of "I am the Clay" and we tried to get him to pass it on to his dad to sign, but he wouldn't. Perhaps it was just failing in the shadow if his father's great successes that bugged him, but maybe it was something else, something more personal. What's interesting is that the Chosen was written in 67, which would have been right around the time Akiva was born. If one were inclined, he could look to the book for insight into this hidden father-son relationship.

    Also shocking was the fact that I was the only person on 30-person crew who knew who Potok was. (He passed away in 2002).

  2. I've been thinking about silence as a pedagogical tool. In my class today, I tried to be quiet and let them talk. The problem is, they don't always talk. Then I think, well, I'm okay with silence, what's wrong with silence? Does it mean they didn't read the text?
    In terms of parenting, I agree that silence can be amazing. I love to sit with Ross. But usually he's talking. :)

  3. I like the sequel "The Promise" even better.

    Sleepy E: Didn't Mrs. Spies asign us Potok in our Senior AP English class?

  4. To me, "The Magic Barrel" is one of the most perfect short stories of all time.

  5. I like I.B. Singer's "Gimpel the Fool."

    I also like Robby Benson the basketball movie "One on One." Has anyone seen this film?

    Robby Benson was also in a bicycling film, the name of which I can't remember.

  6. I saw One on One! But I can't remember a thing about it except that it was about basketball and had Robby Benson in it.

  7. Just recently I've been thinking about the need to shut-up more with my oldest son (he's 10). It seems the need to be silent probably increases with the age of children or at least that would explain my son's increased annoyance with my prattle.



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