On an evening that felt endless — errands and appointments had been scattered at every end of town since early afternoon — I was dragging. Still, my son’s presence in the back seat of the car spurred me toward talkativeness.
“That looked like a great basketball practice, babe,” I said. I continued on, chattering about his dribbling, some trick shots, the speediness of the drills and anything else I could think of to prove my attention and care. I didn’t want my tiredness to come across as a lack of interest, so maybe I overcompensated.
From the darkness behind me, my son’s little voice piped in edgewise.
“Mm-hmm,” he said. And then: “Mom, will you not talk to me for the rest of the ride home? I just want to look out the window.”
That shut me right up.
An internal confusion brewed while I steered us homeward. First, I recognized there was a part of me that would have, in the past, taken his plea personally. If you don’t want to talk to your own mother, what hope is there for a good connection at the end of a long day? But my second thought pushed back: I was proud that he’d grown to clearly voice his needs instead of erupting in irritation. And third, there was a healthy dollop of gratitude for the good blessing of silence in the midst of exhaustion.
He really did simply look out the window for the rest of our journey. Watching the Christmas lights down Main Street. Finding the moon behind skittering clouds. Checking out a reflectively outlined jogger with a dog on a leash. Dark winter nights can feel magical.
Later, I kept coming back to his request, rolling it over to see what it means for me as he grows up. I’ve found curiosity to be one of the best helpers in parenting.
I wonder how many times my son, as a smaller, less articulate, less emotionally aware version of his growing self wished for more calm but was unable to verbalize that need? As a toddler and a preschooler, perhaps. How many times might we have assumed his wild behavior, crankiness or outbursts were attributable to a choice on his part, rather than the lack of ability to use words and say, “I’d rather you stop talking to me,” or touching me or bothering me.
Oh, the meltdowns that probably went undiagnosed over an ordinary bout of overstimulation.
Because that’s what the quiet car ride signified for me, most of all: a reaction to too much stimulation.
The day had been busy, as so many of our days are, and was capped off with loud, fast action. At some point, we humans are unable to tolerate even a single new stimuli without becoming overwhelmed. If we’re aware of it, as I think my son was on a newly discovered level, we can back away and give our tired brains a break before the meltdown begins. Before the warp drive of trying to keep up burns us out and we explode.
Especially around the holidays, there’s so much to see and do, so many exciting events and special treats. So many people to greet, parties to attend, late nights and memories to be made. I’m glad to know my child has the tools in his arsenal to both recognize his needs and give them voice. At least occasionally.
I think I’d fallen into the trap of supposing overstimulation was only a consideration for babies and toddlers. Maybe subconsciously, I assumed we’d moved past the phase in which their developing brains needed a healthy balance of down time and up time. An equilibrium of waking activity and recuperative rest.
Kim John Payne, author of “Simplicity Parenting,” wrote about this balance, saying, “Rest nurtures creativity, which nurtures activity. Activity nurtures rest, which sustains creativity. Each draws from and contributes to the other.”
If we can imagine this regenerative cycle — and more importantly, honor its significance — we can give our kids and ourselves the space to back away from too much stimulation without regret or guilt.
For babies and toddlers, we might have to physically guide them into downtime with baths or nature walks, removing them from the situations they’re too keyed up to handle. For bigger kids, we can teach them the ways of mindfulness with meditation and give them the words to use in identifying being overwhelmed and frustrated. We can also model this mindfulness by accepting our own stimuli-limits and honoring our need for a quiet space or slow moment.
Payne also writes, “But a half-hour or an hour of quiet, restful solitary time during the day is restorative at any age and a habit worth cultivating.”
I tend to agree but find it hard to comply. I feel a need to be accomplishing things at all hours of the day, and downtime fills me with the thought that I’m forgetting something or wasting my valuable time.
My son isn’t similarly challenged. If my eyes are open to his unspoken ebbs and flows, I’ll see him choosing to lie on the floor with a pile of Lego bricks, making soft sound effects as he builds. I’ll see him naturally move from outlandish loudness to smaller, more focused attentions. He’ll choose to look at a magazine for a half-hour, after he’s spent the afternoon charging around the backyard with the dogs. His balance comes naturally.
Until, that is, we fill his day with scheduled plans and activities his brain might not be ready to accept.
I love it when my kids teach me something new, and my boy’s plea for less talking and more gazing has done just that. In this season of life, when it feels in balance to do so, I’ll be striving for a lack of new, exciting, memorable moments and just let the kids have a quiet minute to watch the world go by.
SARAH COYNE is a parenting columnist for the Globe. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.