I’m Ba-a-ack!

Dear Dr. Ray,
I can hardly visit with friends anymore because my children (ages five and three) interrupt us constantly. I send them to play but they keep returning. ―Conversationless

You have several options. One, quit visiting with friends. Tell them you have children now, and you won’t be able to talk to any adults until your kids are teenagers and don’t want to be around you anymore because you embarrass them.

Two, tell your friends to stop interrupting you and your children. You’ll talk to them if and when your kids have to go to the bathroom. But warn them to speak quickly.

Three, teach your children to respect your visits with your friends by setting up some expectations for their behavior.

Obviously you haven’t chosen options one and two, because you still have friends left. I suspect you’ve tinkered with option three but have been frustrated by your kids crashing repeatedly through your expectations. I’m with you. I like option three best, too. Shortly, we’ll explore it.

There are good reasons for permanently interrupting your children’s interrupting. First, even good friends can take only so many exasperating visits. Parents of intrusive children often find their circle of conversational friends shrinking. Second, though our culture has pretty much thrown off the attitude of past generations that “children should be seen and not heard,” the pendulum seems to have swung too far in the other direction. By allowing Oral to be heard whenever she wants, we don’t teach her to respect other people’s right not only to be heard too, but to hear people other than kids. Last, children are more likeable, to us and others, when we don’t allow them to be obnoxious. When was the last time you heard, “You know, I just love the way your children feel so free and comfortable barging into our conversation any time they want.”

One reason children are more pushy than they used to be is because many experts have convinced parents to allow them to be. They need to have loads of attention, so goes the reasoning, to form healthy self-images. Therefore, when little Patience wants to talk, seeks your attention or approval, or just wants to show you something, you’d better drop what you’re doing lest she feel neglected or unimportant.

In fact, a child will not suffer a stunted self-image by not getting every adult in his vicinity to suspend all conversations with others to meet his wants, however urgent he thinks they are. On the contrary, respect for grown-ups’ relationships with others is a critical aspect of character. It helps kids accept that the universe is not here to rotate around them.

So how do you teach this respect? As you’ve probably already noticed, it’s not enough simply to tell your kids, “We’re visiting now. Go play.” or “Please don’t interrupt. Say `Excuse me.”‘ The kids will comply, for a few tenths of a second, but they’ll be back, in full verbal force. You’ll need to add some oomph to your requests. “Fulbright, please go play. The next time you come back and interrupt, you’ll sit on the couch.” In other words, put some consequences behind your expectations. You may have to repeat trips to the couch-or wherever―several times over the next few visits, but the kids will catch on. When Mom says, “Don’t be rude,” she means it.

I wanted to say a few more things, but my kids are bugging me. I wish they’d let me write. Every time I sit down with a pencil, they start. I’ve told them a million times, “Daddy has to work,” but I just can’t get them to…

Dr. Ray