It's OK for Playing Children to Be Noisy

Think of it as the sound of budding resilience and capability.

Large group of joyful kids running with a kite in springtime.
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Having children comes with a lot of surprises, but the one thing for which I was wholly unprepared was the noise level in the house. Children are loud, even when they're raised with reasonable rules like "don't run or yell in the house." Sometimes it gets so noisy that I send them outside to play in the yard, on the sidewalk, or in the side street. That is where they're allowed to release the pent-up yelps, songs, and battle cries that aren't suitable for indoors.

Initially I worried about what my neighbors thought. We live in an established neighborhood of century-old houses in a small Ontario town. Our immediate neighbors are mostly senior citizens whose lives are much quieter than ours. Over the years I've had conversations with them about the noise. Time and again, I hear the same thing – that the sound of playing children is music to their ears. In fact, several elderly women said they love watching the kids run past and enjoy eavesdropping on their imaginary games. The children's antics are entertainment for them. One new neighbor told us she wasn't going to build a fence because she enjoyed the liveliness so much.

Coming from this perspective, I was saddened to read in the New York Times about the animosity parents in Japan feel from neighbors about children's noise. The Times describes a crowdsourced website where people can log locations and complaints about "neighborhoods inhabited by stupid parents who let their children play on roads and parking lots." Keep in mind that this is outdoor play we're talking about – not even the incessant footsteps and crying overhead that would understandably irritate someone in an apartment building.

Reporters Tiffany May and Hisako Ueno write:

"Experts see a growing intolerance toward children at play as some in the country’s aging population become less familiar with the sounds of small children. Over the years, residents in various districts have campaigned against the construction of nursery schools, even as parents have called for more affordable day care options and economists are worried that people in Japan, which has the oldest population, aren’t having enough babies."

This is unfortunate. Parenting is hard enough, but to add a level of anxiety over what people think of the noise your children make is a stressful way to live. One 35-year-old mother, Saori Hiramoto, told the Times, "I really feel it’s so tough to raise kids. People say parents should be responsible for child care, but it’s very difficult, especially for single parents. We’ve come to our limits. I think that the society or community should watch and raise kids as members in society."

This tension between parents and non-parents can be found everywhere. In Toronto, a mother of four boys received an anonymous letter in 2018 complaining of the noise her children make while playing outside. The writer suggested that she "correct" the children when they scream, supervise them constantly, or take them to the park. The mother was upset, posting on Facebook that it left her feeling on edge, but ultimately committed to prioritizing outdoor play: "I have to think of them above all else, and they need to get outside.”

Masako Madea, a population specialist at Japan's Konan University, told ABS-CBN News that complaints about child noise are happening daily. "As society has fewer and fewer children, people get less used to hearing them. It's a vicious circle: fewer children makes people less accustomed to hearing the noise they naturally make, which spawns complaints about them and contributes to the growing feeling among younger parents that they don't want to have more children."

I see it as part of my job as a mother to normalize the sound of children playing outside. Every hour they spend out there is a small victory. Not only is it building toward the 1,000 Hours Outside goal that we're striving for in a year, but it makes a point that children are living, breathing, contributing members of our society. Their presence matters just as much as mine. It's important to remember, too, that kids are no noisier than many other things. Barking dogs, rumbling motorcycles, the roar of distant traffic, blaring music, construction – all of these things invade our homes and ears on a daily basis. 

Indeed, even the UK-based website Problem Neighbours appears to agree with me. When asked what to do about noisy children, an article advises, "There’s not much that you can do about excessive noise during the day from children. Kids are exuberant by nature and it would seem a little bit churlish to try to curb normal noise levels, even if the screaming and shouting is getting a bit too much."

Furthermore, as a parent who strives to minimize my kids' screen time, outdoor play is our go-to activity when other parents might whip out the iPad for some mental (and acoustical) relief. That iPad, however, feeds into the vicious circle mentioned above – the quieter it is, the more people get used to that and feel shocked by natural play noise when it occurs. And yet, excessive screen time is what's unnatural and harming children's development at current consumption levels. To give a child a screen on a regular basis because you don't want play noise is almost like saying, "Don't eat raw vegetables because I don't like the crunching sound; here's some soft candy." If we hope to combat the negative effects of screen time, then we have to let children play without making them feel bad about the inevitable ruckus that accompanies it.

If you're a parent, I urge you to let your child play freely outside. Allow your child to claim their rightful place out in the neighborhood and know that you're improving your child by allowing it. You can still set rules like "no screaming." If you're a neighbor, please take a breath and relax. Don't be a churl! Know that children have a right to play, enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 31. Think back on your own most formative childhood memories; chances are, those took place outside. And if you don't mind the noise, tell the parents. It means a lot to know that our children's play sounds are not annoying someone else.

We are all trying to do our best with what we've got. Just be kind, and let those kids be kids, with whatever noise that might entail.