The Quiet Game might seem like the oldest trick in the book. Convincing children to compete to see who can be silent the longest is so elegant and so logical. But, in fact, the modern iteration of the game was invented in the 20th century. Dr. Maria Montessori, the famous Italian physician and preschool revolutionary claimed to have developed the “Silence Game” in 1930. Though it’s a bit unclear what her research and development process looked like, Montessori’s thinking was crystal: Not doing stuff is hard, doubly so if you’re a child.
“It is more difficult not to move than to move well,” she wrote. “For this reason the children must have done long exercises in moving well and in controlling their motions before being able to succeed in this sort of triumph of the will which inhibits every voluntary movement.”
Maria Montessori knew how to torture a sentence to death, but she also knew how to get a kid to be shut up and that knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation and from the front seats of many cars to the back. The Quiet Game has iterated as it has spread, evolving into Silent Ball (kids pass a ball silently and get knocked out for making noise and/or dropping the ball), Heads Up Seven Up (seven kids anonymously and inaudibly push down the thumbs of their favored classmates), and even Graveyard for the rare goth toddler (kids lie down and don’t move or make a sound, while one of their peers picks the best dead). There’s even a downloadable app version of the Quiet Game because of course there is.
The Quiet Game works because it plays on two impulses. Kids want to be loud and do stuff. Kids also want to win. The game makes it impossible to do both and leverage a sense of competition to overcome urges towards vocally or physically disruptive behavior. Why is it so effective? This taps into children’s competitive edge, which kicks in around age 4 or 5, according to Tovah Klein, author of How Toddlers Thrive. Kids around the age of 4 or 5 struggle to be quiet but also really, really hate losing. It helps that they are suggestible as well. They want to play. That’s the hidden motivation that makes the whole thing gel.
While the point for parents is peace, the goal for kids is cracking each other. The game turns players instantly into Saturday Night Live rookies trying to break each other with every silent joke. Repressing my impulse to speak as a kid often piqued other creative compulsions. This is where recurring family bits like The Silent Scream were born. The Silent Scream was exactly what sounds like, a scream with all of the shaking intensity yet none of the noise, and a knockout punch in the Quiet Game. It was such a favorite, it spiraled from the game into the creepiest way to wake my brother up from naps.
Eventually, kids mature enough to learn that winning the Quiet Game isn’t about being quiet at all. It’s about making sure the other person loses with the creativity, subtlety, and skill that the rules call for. In this way, the game teaches kids to be empathetic and sensitive to each other while also providing a rudimentary lesson in comedic timing. It is not an anti-social exercise. It’s an intensely social exercise, which is why parents can use it to mindfuck their children into submission without even a smidge of guilt. No one is getting hurt.
In fact, kids are learning a super valuable lesson beyond how to control themselves and attempt to control others. They are learning that they have impulses that they need to control. That’s a critical piece of knowledge that proves extremely helpful post-puberty, but can give a kid a serious leg up even before then. Self-control is great, but introspection is arguably more powerful. Clever kids are going to wonder why they want to talk. They are going to engage with their own limitations and with the things about themselves that are not derivative of emotion or experience.
But ultimately the joke of the Quiet Game is that the fun part happens when someone loses. Kids figure that out over time and they fast forward to the highlight. Who blames them? Probably a long-dead Italian educator, but few people beyond that. And it’s enough anyway. The Quiet Game works beautiful for a discrete length of time and it is glorious while it lasts. It is the greatest prank of all time because ultimately it isn’t really a prank at all.