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Calls turn children into monsters

Blessed quiet. The kids color. The dog sleeps. I sort winter clothing. The phone rings. A friend. A chance to have one of those really good conversations in which world problems are resolved.

No such luck.

I don't know what it is about telephone calls. They transform happily playing children into ravenous wolves _ howling, whining beasts desperate to devour their mothers' full attention.

If you're a mom, you know the drill. In my house, it begins with Ben wrapping his body around my leg. Next, Jenny needs juice, which she can get on her own unless Mommy's on the phone. Then, no matter which toy one child has, the other wants it more than life itself. Fights ensue.

Bribes work for a limited time. For a while, a promise of a walk to the park or an Oreo brings five minutes of phone peace.

Threats work, yet have to be carried out. Yelling at the kids stops the immediate action but doesn't cure the cause: Children love the spotlight and crave Mommy's attention, especially when anyone else has it.

The mysterious telephone alchemy creates other glitches. When Jenny learned to talk, one of her first sentences was a carefully repeated: "Karen's on the phone. Talk to you now."

Puzzled, because I hadn't heard the ring, I picked up the phone.

"Hello?"

"This is a long-distance operator. Is everything okay there?" Great. My 2-year-old called France.

Eight-month-old Ben had his day, too. Even before he became tornado toddler, he managed to punch 911 on the phone. Because he grunted more than talked, it took me a while, once I pulled the phone from his grasp, to convince the emergency dispatch operator that Ben had not been abused.

What have I learned that works?

When I know someone plans to call, I establish rules ahead of time. I explain that the call will be for me and that I require peace. This works, as long as I do it before the call.

I give my children their own time on the phone. Thanks to those wonderful telemarketers, this is easy. Whenever anyone calls for the "woman of the house," I say, "One moment, please," and hand the call to Jenny. She'll chat with any sales representative until the marketer's patience evaporates.

I've taught my children how to call 911 and what 911 means.

And because I realize the root cause of telephone alchemy is that kids need to know the answers to key questions: "Am I still important?" "Are you always going to be available when I need you?" and "How much can I get away with?" I pay a lot of attention to preventive maintenance.

I spend a lot of time playing with them, enough that they've had a full Mommy fix and are content with quiet play.

I set general rules that protect all conversations. They know that when Mommy's talking to someone they're not to interrupt. They also know that if an adult interrupts their time, I acknowledge the adult but continue to focus on my child.

And I reward rather than bribe. Whenever they've allowed me sanity on an evening phone conversation, I tell them how proud I am of them.

So, go ahead. Check it out. Call me.

Lynne Curry-Swann is president of The Growth Company, a management consultant firm in Anchorage, Alaska; a newspaper columnist; and a wife and mother to four children (two stepchildren), ages 2, 4, 16 and 18.

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