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Parents complain a lot about being interrupted when they are on the telephone.

Interrupting a parent on the telephone is virtually universal. It also ranks high on the list of annoying things kids do. When my own children were small they seemed to be able to play together quietly and without my participation until the phone rang or I picked up the phone to make a call. Then they wanted me — right then!

We had a parrot who would play or talk to himself all day long. But the minute I got on the phone, Papagayo started screaming. Obviously the telephone triggers annoying behavior in more than one species!

What happens when Mommy talks on the telephone? For one thing she is not paying attention to the children. Mommy is focusing her attention on something else.

Children experience two kinds of “time” with parents: focused time and present-but-not-interacting time. In the case of focused time, the parent is paying full attention to the child and not doing anything else at the time. The parent is at the child’s level, makes eye contact, and is close enough to touch the child.

Focused time is important; every child needs some of this from each parent every day. Focused time is important to parents as well. Such closeness brings precious moments.

Most of the time parents spend with children falls into the “present-but-not-interacting time” category. The parent is making supper, the child plays at the kitchen table. The child may ask the parent to look at a drawing, the parent may glance over and decide the drawing is good enough to be placed on the refrigerator gallery.

This, too, is important time for both child and parent. Children, even when they don’t seem to be paying attention, learn much from what the parent is doing and will imitate how the parent does things. Sometimes special, memorable moments arise when the child looks up and asks a great question or draws a wonderful conclusion, or simply says, “Mommy, I love you.”

What happens when the mother is on the telephone? Now the mother’s attention is focused AWAY from the children — and they know it. They know she is no longer as accessible as she is when she is stirring the soup or folding clothes.

The key to understanding why your children are so reluctant to give up their interruptive behavior is that negative attention is still attention. Whether Mommy gets annoyed, cajoles, threatens, manipulates the order of who talks to Grandma first, or even yells and punishes — all of these negative maternal behaviors equal nonstop maternal attention.

Some suggestions for dealing with the problem of telephonitis interruptus:

• Remember you have the right to talk on the telephone in peace and quiet and uninterrupted.

• Role play with the children so they understand what an interruption is and the difference between, “Mommy, I want a cookie.” and “The house is on fire!”

• Do not give your children negative attention when you are on the phone.

• Teach your children what I call “household manners.” These are those social niceties that enable a family to live in peace and harmony in one dwelling. One of these niceties is to keep quiet or leave the room when someone is on the phone.

• Buy a special timer and keep it at the telephone. Tell the children that when Grandma calls, the timer will be set for five minutes. When it goes off they can talk to Grandma. Until the timer goes off they will play quietly and not interrupt Mommy.

• Create a “quiet place” in your house where the phone is located. The children can play in the quiet room but only quiet games: coloring, stickers, reading, etc. Boisterous games are played elsewhere. Ideally young children also have a “noisy place” to play which is furnished to absorb sound.

• Try using what is called, “Grandma’s Rule”. A wise grandma figured out that children respond to carrots better than sticks. It goes like this. You say, “If you let me talk in peace and quiet, I will take you to the zoo (or the frozen yogurt shop, or the park)”. If they do, you do. If they don’t, you don’t. Explain that in the future if they let Mommy talk, they will get the treat. But they won’t get it today because they didn’t.

One of these suggestions should work. But, of course, there is no such thing as instant conversion from annoying to cooperative behavior in children so keep trying.