You need to talk to the plumber, but you can barely hear yourself think above the din of your four-year-old: “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” You put your hand over the phone and ask, “What do you want?” “Um,” says your preschooler, who is suddenly decidedly less insistent. “I saw a bug today.”
Preschoolers are notorious for their tendency to interrupt whenever their parents are involved in conversation with another adult. Why do they do it? And how can you teach your child to wait until you’re finished unless the situation is truly an emergency?
Toronto parent educator Beverley Cathcart-Ross says that the phone call interruption scenario is one that she always covers in her seminars with parents because it’s so common — and so frustrating.
“Kids this age crave their parents’ attention and they haven’t yet learned that there are times when it’s not appropriate or possible for parents to provide it,” says Cathcart-Ross. “Preschoolers are black-and-white thinkers. Love is either being given, or it’s gone. It makes no logical sense to parents that a child who’s enjoyed your undivided attention all morning becomes intensely demanding the moment you’re on the phone or stop to chat for a minute with a neighbour.”
From the child’s point of view, says Cathcart-Ross, you’re suddenly unavailable, and he feels left out. “Some kids think, ‘You’re not spending time with me and I don’t feel loved,” she explains. “It’s not until kids are five years of age or so that they get the idea that they’re loved even when you’re tied up with someone else.”
Children do need to learn that they can’t be the centre of attention all the time, that sometimes your attention is needed elsewhere, says Cathcart-Ross. Here’s how to gently encourage this understanding:
Don’t give attention The worst thing you can do is stop and give your child attention, if she’s interrupting. That doesn’t mean you have to be cold. Cathcart-Ross says parents can ignore a child in a warm fuzzy way. Rub your child’s back to let her know you’re aware of her presence, but don’t make eye contact. “The message is: I know you’re there, but I need to finish my phone call.”
Do give information Explain to your child — ideally before you make the call — that interruptions are inappropriate. You might say, “Daddy needs to talk to Grandma sometimes, and it’s not respectful for me to talk to two people at once. Unless it’s an emergency, you need to wait until I’m finished before asking your question.” An agreed-upon hand signal that indicates you’re not available to talk may also work well. Then you can talk about what a true emergency is — that the baby has fallen or the sink is overflowing.
Do make it possible to be close to you Keep a basket of quiet playthings or some stickers and a little book near the phone. Explain to your child that he is welcome to be near you, but not to interrupt you.
Do show respect to your child Young kids have limited patience, so none of these strategies will give you the time and space for a long catch-up over the phone. Sometimes you may have to tell your caller your child needs you and you’ll call back. By the same token, be respectful of the time you set aside to focus on your child. “If it’s storytime,” says Cathcart-Ross, “and the phone rings, you might say, ‘It’s storytime so I’m not going to take that call.’ If it’s a call you’ve been waiting for, say ‘I’ve been waiting for this call. I’m sorry it’s interrupting our story, but I will come back to you as soon as I can.’”
Don’t blast your child when you get off the phone It may take a few tries, but kids will learn not to interrupt you, says Cathcart-Ross. A gentle talk about your expectations (for example, “I’m all yours as soon as I’m off the phone”) is much better than getting angry. However, says Cathcart-Ross, talking will only take you so far: It’s consistent and repeated actions, such as taking the call in another room, that help children learn that when you say you’re not available, you mean it.