Inside Voice, My Ear!

Have you ever watched Dora the Explorer? I watched it a few times, just to check it out. I promptly banned it, with my kids’ blessing, from our home.

The girl cannot express herself without shrieking. She yells everything. It’s as if she is incapable of having fun, or being excited, without being really, really loud. And what’s worse, she incites her audience to yell, too. “I can’t hear you!” she exhorts. “Louder! Louder! Map! Backpack! Hearing Aid!” Good heavens, would you please shut up!?

My kids agree that she’s annoying as hell. But, big shocker, no one else does. Then again, plenty of parents I’d thought were sane find Caillou, that obnoxious pansy, just adorable. They ignore — or don’t notice — that he has only two modes of speech: cloying baby-talk and ear-piercing whining. Can you imagine the offspring of Caillou and Dora? Ha! Makes me shudder. But I digress.

So, Dora. Surely it’s not just bad acting on the part of the 14-year-old voice actress. She is, after all, being directed. Someone is asking her, guiding her, to shout. And to entice her viewers to shout. But why? Several potential explanations come to mind.

First potential explanation: It’s a cultural thing.

Politically incorrect or not, I have, in fact, noticed that a disproportionate percentage of extra-loud public whining emanates, unchecked, from Hispanic children. But then, didn’t Latin culture also produce such soothing and appealing non-shriekers as Jennifer Lopez, Oscar De La Hoya, Salma Hayek, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez? No, I don’t buy the cultural explanation. Dora isn’t throwing a tantrum at Target. She’s on an adventure with Boots the monkey, having fun.

Second potential explanation: Maybe the show isn’t all that interesting and the only way to trick you into thinking it’s worthwhile is to scream everything.

Not sure that works either. Most kids, and their parents, love the show. I’d say it’s despite, not because of, the shouting. Would they love it as much without the shouting? Hard to know. Still, the stories seem interesting enough for preschoolers — adventures and magical backpacks and talking monkeys. Sounds good. And I’m all for multiculturalism, problem-solving, and learning a foreign language. But I sure don’t want my kids learning that the way to express enthusiasm is to yell and scream.

Third potential explanation: Nobody cares.

Well, obviously I do. But as you’ve probably noticed by now, I tend to care about — OK, be bothered by — things others don’t notice, take as a given, or actively support.

And there’s evidence to support potential explanation #3. When I’ve surveyed other parents about Dora the Explorer, asking how they can stand it and pointing out her inability to speak without shouting, they inevitably say, “Wow, I never noticed that. I guess you’re right. Oh, well. The kids love her.” Every time. They really never noticed. How can that be? And when it’s pointed out to them they shrug. They just don’t care.

Fact is, most parents put up with so much shouting off-screen, they don’t notice it on-screen. They take shouting as a given. Kids shout. That’s how they are. What can you do?

I suspect that the Dora phenomenon simply reflects the “scream inside, scream even louder outside” trend. Use your “inside voice” (a phrase that elicits in me slight nausea and a panicky suspicion that the world is coming to an end) indoors, but scream as loud as you want, whenever you want, anywhere else.

Of course there are exceptions. Lots of exceptions. All in favor of shouting.

If the indoor place has anything, however remote, to do with children, then “inside voice” is suspended. This includes any restaurant that does not require jacket and tie, and anywhere strollers are welcome. If the occasion involves children, regardless of setting, then “inside voice” is suspended. You cannot be having fun if you’re not screaming like a raving lunatic, so don’t worry if it annoys anyone. It’s your right as a child to shriek, so go for it.

After Sunday School a few weeks ago, my husband stood in the parking lot waiting to collect our kids. He and a few other parents attempted to have a conversation. No luck. Running around the parking lot and adjacent playground were a small group of boys, screaming relentlessly.

When my husband asked the kids to please quiet down, one parent was aghast. “But they’re kids!” she said. My husband replied, “Yes, and I’m an adult. And I shouldn’t have to be subjected to screaming or struggle to make myself heard.”

Since when did being a kid mean being entitled to run around screaming like a raving lunatic, disrupting adult conversations and annoying anyone within a half-mile radius? When did all outdoors become a “civility-free zone” where anything goes and no one else matters? Is that a “right of childhood?” A roof over your head, unconditional parental love, food, clothing, a public education, and free reign to shriek whenever and wherever you want?

If uncivil behavior is condoned and even encouraged in kids, when does that license get revoked, and by whom? If nothing is expected of you when you’re 5 or 15 — if you’re taught that only you and what you want, when you want it, matter — then what would change when you’re 25 or 45? When, and why, do you grow up? You’ve been given no reason and shown no model for doing so.

In fact, the “inside voice” phenomenon is so widespread, even adults have taken it to heart. One evening last week, we met friends at a local bistro. It was a special treat for the kids to be out at a restaurant so close to bedtime. The weather was great, so we decided to sit outside. Good food and service, pleasant surroundings. It was a terrific evening, except for the over-boisterous folks at the next table. Four adults. All well-dressed, well-groomed, and impossibly, endlessly loud. We couldn’t wait for them to leave. I suspect they were using their “outside voices.”

During that dinner I thought about my grandmother, who, all the years I knew her, wore a hearing aid. She carried in her purse (along with a roll of Certs, a package of blue Trident, and a handkerchief) one of those nifty, circular battery-dispensing packages. Like some sort of alternative candy dispenser, she’d pop open the little door in the back of the package then rotate the front of the unit until one small, smooth battery fell into her hand.

When she grew tired of hearing, she’d simply switch the hearing aid off. At a restaurant, for example. When the amplified conversation, background music, and utensil clinking became too much, she’d fiddle with the hearing aid, then sit happily, temporarily, deaf. Apparently, when you wear a hearing aid (at least back then), excess noise can be painful.

Then again, I can hear very well, and excess noise is painful to me. I don’t understand why it’s not painful, or at least annoying, to others, as well. Why doesn’t it bother anyone? Why doesn’t Dora drive other people mad?

True, I have sensitive ears. After my second ear surgery for shattered ear drums, my mother conceded that perhaps it wasn’t a character flaw that made the sounds of her power and hand tools unbearable to me. But even those without my Steve Austen-like ears surely must notice that people are yelling a lot more. Especially kids. And nobody is telling then to hush. No, they’re encouraging them, like Dora, to shout — Louder! Louder! I… can’t… hear… you! (It’s no wonder you can’t hear them. You’re nearly deaf from all the shouting).

And just whom is all this shouting supposed to benefit? The hoarse kids who know no other way to express excitement or hold someone’s attention? The deafened adults around them who can’t carry on a conversation?

Before you take me to task for expecting children to stand still and silent, no, I am not talking about hushing the shrieks of terrified glee on roller coasters, at scary movies, or around ghost-storied campfires. I am not talking about stifling the sweet giggles of little girls at slumber parties or the rowdy shouts of encouragement from ball-game teammates.

And here’s something to consider:  You don’t have to scream to have fun. Just ask The Wonder Pets and The Backyardigans. They manage to convey infectious joy, enthusiasm, and excitement, as well as negative emotions, and to sing, dance, solve problems, and rescue baby animals in need, all without damaging any eardrums.

I’m talking about shouting when simply talking would suffice. Yelling where and when it is clearly disruptive, annoying, inappropriate, or inconsiderate yet, for some reason, is condoned, and even encouraged.

Perhaps someone out there can provide some insight?

(originally posted Oct. 20, 2010)


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