Interrupting, Ages 3 to 6

Why does my child constantly interrupt me?

Until they reach the age of 3 or 4, children think that the world and everything in it (including their parents) exist for their benefit. Not only that but their short-term memory isn't well developed, which means your child's impulse to say things right now before she forgets actually has a physiological basis. Therefore, the very concept of interrupting is only starting to make sense to your child. She's still figuring out that you sometimes need to finish tasks that don't involve her or want to talk to people other than her. As her short-term memory improves and she becomes less impulsive, she'll be able to hold on to a thought while waiting for someone else to finish (although you shouldn't expect a 6-year-old to hold off for more than about three minutes).

Still, deciding whether and when to interrupt calls for critical-thinking skills (when is it okay to break in on my prattling parent -- When I'm hungry? When the sink is about to overflow? When the house is on fire? What about when I need a tissue?). And those come more slowly than the ability to say "please."

Interrupting is an exasperating habit -- but it can be conquered. While you're working on it, try to look at this behavior as a reflection of the way your child views the world rather than as something she does purposefully to drive you insane. She may be learning that the world doesn't revolve around her, but she'd probably prefer that it did -- and she knows that your world largely does.

How can I teach my child not to interrupt?

Take advantage of your child's propensity to copy adult behavior by setting a fine example for her. If you and your partner tend to cut each other off, work on ending that habit. Any time you forget and break in on him or anyone else, stop yourself and say, "Sorry. I interrupted you. Go on." Do the same thing if you catch yourself interrupting your child when she is talking to you. With a little luck, your child will not only absorb your good manners but your ease in graciously admitting to a mistake.

At play groups, daycare, or preschool, your child has probably learned about taking turns; you can draw on this skill to teach her to wait to say her piece until another person finishes talking. Use a simple game to introduce your child to the stop-and-go pattern of conversation. Kneel or sit so you can make eye contact, as you would with an adult. Ask her an open-ended question, one that invites a longish reply, such as, "What's your favorite thing to do on Saturday morning?" Let her answer while you listen attentively. Prompt her gently if necessary: "Are you finished? Okay, now it's your turn to ask me a question." If she interrupts your answer, touch your finger to her lips and finish your thought. Then tell her, "It's your turn now," and let her continue the conversation, or ask another question if she gets stalled. You won't make a dinner party companion out of your child, but you can introduce her to the basic idea of conversational give-and-take.

Another educational game is best played when a close friend or relative comes over for a relaxed visit. Ask your friend if she minds helping you with an exercise that may help your child learn to interrupt less frequently. If she's game, offer her a magazine or newspaper to read, then explain to your child that you're going to take turns talking with her and with your friend for five minutes each. Set a timer and focus on your child while your friend reads. When the bell rings, offer your child a choice of activities and remind her that she should not interfere with your five-minute chat with your friend. Don't forget to celebrate the successful turn-taking with juice and a cookie!

How can I teach my child to stop interrupting when I'm on the phone?

Your child may feel less threatened when she sees you engrossed in a phone call if you invite her to devise her own solution. Ask her, "Would you like to get a book or toy and then sit close to me while I'm on the phone? Or would you rather sit at the table and have some juice?" Offering her a choice between two plans lets her feel she has some control over her activities and makes it clear that you haven't forgotten her needs.

If this doesn't work, try redirecting her attention. You might set up a box or drawer of special toys or art supplies that get used only during phone calls, fill a sink or tub with water and plastic cups for her to play with (as long as you can watch her), or offer her a toy phone so she can talk to an imaginary friend at the same time.

If the person on the other end is a good friend or an understanding relative, ask her to help you teach your child some phone etiquette: Have her say, "Hello, this is Molly. How are you?" (If your child is on the chatty side, make sure you set some rules beforehand or you'll never get her off the phone.)

When can I expect my child to start saying "excuse me" and waiting until I give her my attention?

By the age of 7, your child should be able to say politely, "Excuse me. I have a question," and wait to be acknowledged. But at 4 or 5, she'll be doing well to learn that interrupting is generally frowned upon, that sometimes people need to interrupt, and that there is a best way to do that. If she can put these principles into action most or even some of the time, you have reason to be delighted and to heap on the praise.

Reading books together and talking about them is always a good way to get an idea across. Check out The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners, Babette Cole's The Bad Good Manners Book, Aliki's Manners, Caralyn and Mark Buehner's It's a Spoon, Not a Shovel, the classic What Do You Say, Dear? by Sesyle Joslyn (with illustrations by Maurice Sendak), and -- a great choice for irrepressible girls -- Kevin Henkes's Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse.

For your sanity and that of your child, however, keep your expectations realistic. When she's this young, it's important to remember that you're using lessons like these to introduce a principle rather than to achieve a goal.

References

The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child From Birth to Age Ten. William Sears, Little Brown & Co., 1995

The Field Guide to Parenting: A Comprehensive Handbook of Great Ideas, Advice, Tips, and Solutions for Parenting Children Ages One to Five. Shelley Butler, Chandler House Press. 1999.

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