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Need to Command an Unruly Crowd of 6-Year-Olds? Bring a Whistle

This one set me back $4. But the organizational power it gave me is priceless.

Flickr/Sterling G

It’s usually easy enough to control your kid. Even if they’re acting out, you’re the authority figure, the dad, the guardian of dessert. They have to listen to you. Add a sibling to the mix and you can still usually pull off the command. But bring in an outsider (or three) to that group, at say, a birthday party? You’re toast. They have the numbers, the autonomy, and the stamina to wear you out — and they know it. When in a group, kids taste freedom and are quick to go Lord of the Flies on the situation.

That is, until the whistle blows.

You probably haven’t put much thought into the lowly whistle since your days in gym class. It is a tool used to command attention from everyone in hearing distance — some 3,000 feet for your average whistle. Police have used them to instill fear into bad guys since 1884. Trains and wary travelers sound them to warn others to stay away. The skinny guy in stripes blows one to stop a field of 250-plus-pound linebackers. And, yes, it can control a rowdy group of kids.

I put a stainless steel coach’s whistle — the kind you probably saw on the field in your gaming hey-day — to the test recently at my daughter’s birthday party where more than a dozen 6-year-olds ran wild. It put me back $4 on Amazon. At one point, one-third of the kids were up a tree, one-third were trying to roll a log down a hill (full of picnickers), and the rest of the stragglers were doing their own thing — plotting escape or damaging random plant life. I offered a resounding peal.

And that was all it took to grab the attention and abeyance of the entire group. Stunned, the 6-year-olds walked toward the direction of the sound, following me onto a plot of grass where I had organized activities waiting. Now for the weird part: Its effects linger. The group of formerly rambunctious kids listened to my every detailed instruction as if they were under some sort of spell. One simple blow on the whistle and they followed my every command for a solid five minutes (a lifetime for a 6-year-old).

What’s going on here? Neuroscience might offer an answer. A study published in Nature Neuroscience a few years back found that loud noises can trigger the release of noradrenaline in the brain — you know, the “fight or flight” hormone that makes you alert, vigilant, focused, and ready to form and retrieve memories. That, or they were running wild because they were bored and my whistle offered enticement, new activity, direction.

Either way, the next time you’re taking charge of a group of kids, take your whistle. But don’t go too crazy with your newfound power — a little freeplay is good for kids. after all.

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