Dear Dr. Debbie,
Our 3-year-old has become a great talker. He starts chatting when I help him dress for school, talks nonstop throughout the drive, then transfers his babbling to his teacher and classmates as I depart. He shares conversation with his father and me at dinner, but doesn’t seem to understand that sometimes, we have things to say just to each other. How can we keep him from interrupting us?
The Line is Busy
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It’s hard for a 3-year-old to put the brakes on his mile-a-minute thoughts. At this age, there are twice as many neural connections in his brain as there are in an adult’s brain. That’s why one thought quickly leads him to another and another and another. Not yet formed are the neural networks required to be considerate of others’ needs and feelings. These will gradually develop over time. Up until about age 8, however, children will blurt out whatever comes to mind, regardless of whether or not it may be of interest to those around them.
You can help your son learn the mechanics of saying, “excuse me,” then waiting for permission to interrupt a conversation in progress. Mom and Dad can demonstrate this in his presence so he can see how it works. Also use play time with your son, using dolls, stuffed animals or just role playing, to model the interruption of a conversation between two characters by a third. Pretend play is an excellent way to impart manners.
The tricky thing for a young child to master is the timing of the “excuse me.” As a polite adult, you know to wait for the end of a sentence before trying to get the attention of a receptionist or store clerk who is conversing with someone else. Experience and brain maturity have led you to accept that you will be better received if you don’t try to abruptly cut her off. With good timing, which usually requires a little waiting from you, she’ll be more inclined to help you.
As you help your son practice how to interrupt a conversation, be sure to reward his politeness with a prompt finish or temporary pause and turn your full attention to him. As he gains confidence that he will indeed have a chance to share his overflowing thoughts with you, his patience will grow.
Why does he interrupt? Basically, it’s because he’s ego-centric. It is difficult for him to think beyond his own needs and his own point of view. And knowing that he can’t always meet his own needs, your ready attention reassures him that he won’t be without food, comfort, entertainment, simple explanations of how the world works, and of course, constant affirmations that he is the apple of your eye.
To stave off disruption to your conversations, pre-empt his need for attention by giving him lots of it. It doesn’t have to all come from you. Take dictation from him to send an email or letter to a grandparent or a friend he hasn’t seen in a while. Teach him to use the phone to chat with relatives and family friends. If you haven’t yet, invite a guest or two to dinner who would enjoy talking with your tot about his exciting experiences, curious questions and future intentions. If he needs help, coach him to converse with other adults and children you encounter together – at the playground, the children’s section of the library or in the checkout line at the grocery store. Although from your description of how he enters school, he may not need any prompting, just ample audiences.
If you are consistent with reminding him about asking for permission when he has to “bump into” a conversation, and observant of this protocol yourself, your son will soon learn how to be successful at checking first before gaining the attention he seeks.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.