When a stranger in the street tells my children to keep the noise down, even I have to admit it’s time to take out the earplugs and start fiddling with the family’s volume control.
I was not as affronted as you might think by the lady’s intervention. Humiliation and acute embarrassment being something of a regular feature these days, I was mainly just grateful that somebody had made the noise stop. As, no doubt, was the rest of the street.
The racket in question was a heated discussion between Harry, six, and me about whether or not he was shouting. (“I started off politely and then I worked up to shouting,” he bellowed). At the same time Alec, four, was pawing at my knees babbling excitedly about a hole that British Gas has just dug in our road while Kit had stopped, rolled up his trousers and was trying to get my attention focused on a tiny cut he’d sustained a week ago. In short, it was chaos. I hadn’t really noticed, because that is the norm in our house.
As we returned home, chastened, I realised that in the last six years my noise tolerance has risen dramatically. Admittedly, having twins who between them cried continually for approximately a year hastened that process and no doubt hardened Harry against the more subtle aspects of communication as he spent his formative years attempting to make himself heard over his brothers’ wails. Alec and Kit learnt from an early age to block each other out and rarely disturbed each other with their crying. One night I went into their room after Alec had been repeatedly howling to find Kit fast asleep with his fists clamped over his ears.
Over the years I have perfected the art of selective deafness – a common condition amongst parents – which allows you to function and retain your sanity by blocking out whining, crying and shouting below a certain level.
While most normal people associate white noise with a washing machine, a blank television screen or maybe even a dolphin’s cry, for me, it has become the sound of small voices raised in grumpiness, injustice or tiredness.
I am able to chat pleasantly to a fellow mum, completely ignoring the cacophony of competing voices below me until the level reaches a tipping point (usually when I can’t actually hear the person I’m talking to) at which stage I snap: “Will you be quiet. NOW!” before turning sweetly back to my startled companion and resuming the conversation.
On holiday I blanked it out so successfully that as I read to Alec in his bottom bunk, Harry was actually being strangled by Kit on the top bunk. It was only when his cries turned to splutters that I realised the potentially life threatening nature of his distress and intervened.
Obviously I try not to ignore my children all the time. Although I spend a large portion of the day begging them not to shout and fight, I do also defend their right to shriek and squeal. Hell, laugh even. They are children, after all.
So when my neighbour requested that the boys relocate from our back garden to the park on the first and possibly only sunny day of last summer I feel my husband was fully justified in pointing her in the direction of our local library. Had they still been yelling at 8pm then maybe she would have had a point. But they were tucked up in bed and our house was silent as it is most nights, which I think buys us quite a lot of daytime shouting tokens.
I don’t pretend to be saintly where other people’s noisy children are concerned either. I was furious when a baby howled through Wreck-It Ralph – only the second film Harry has ever seen at a cinema (that’s if you count Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked) and I was equally dischuffed to be seated next to an eight-month-old at Harry’s first proper classical concert.
Which brings us back to my problem of how to return our noise level to something approaching socially acceptable. It is a point I attempt to discuss with the boys over dinner. Half way through my clearly over-long explanation of why the shouting must stop Harry suddenly leaps from his chair, adopts the pose of a guitar-playing rock star and shouts “Oooo, sexy lay-dee!” before returning to his seat. Alec erupts with laughter and shrieks “Mama Mia!” while Kit resorts to his fallback angry tiger impression for good measure. I pause, waiting for a moment to resume my chat.
I’m still waiting.