A few years ago, I noticed that my kiddos had taken on the awful and dreaded habit of getting my attention in negative ways-patting my arm repeatedly saying, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” or just plain interrupting me while I was immersed in conversation with another adult or with their dad or with their sibling. They had no boundaries and were often very rude and disrespectful in how they attempted to get my attention. It was so frustrating. They needed to be heard, certainly, but they also needed to learn how to grab my attention (or the attention of any adult or other person) respectfully.
So I set out to save my sanity while guiding my children in an appropriate way to grab my attention. And guess what? It WORKED! I sit here writing today just hours after my 2 year old successfully grabbed my attention in a thoughtful way. He was heard, and I wasn’t interrupted from listening to his sister’s story. He’s TWO!
Here’s what we do: If I am speaking and my children need my attention, they will quietly walk up and put their hand on my body. This signals to me that they need my attention. If I am not quite ready to chat with them yet, I place my hand on theirs, which acknowledges to them that I know they want to speak to me and that I will give them my attention when I am available. Once my conversation either ends or gets to a spot where I can pause to give them my attention, they have it! The only exception to this rule is for safety, danger, and emergency type situations.
It was definitely a process, and easier for some of the children to grasp than others. I started by explaining that from now on, if I was talking to or listening to someone else, that they needed to place their hand quietly on my body. Then, the next time they tried to walk up and interrupt me, I just reminded them, “put your hand here” while placing their hand on my arm. It took a little while of reminding them to place their hand on me, but eventually they got it. Their hand was often still accompanied by an interrupting voice, but it was progress! If they got the hand placement correct but still verbally interrupted, I’d just give them a little “shh” with my finger on my lips, and they’d remember that they needed to wait.
Eventually, they learned that they needed to both place their hand on my body AND wait quietly and patiently. Levi, 2, just this evening placed his hand on me while I was listening to his sister tell me a story. I was so excited that I tapped my husband on his arm to get his attention to notice. He tried to interrupt several times, but he is learning. And when his sister was done, I praised him for his patience and kindness in letting me finish listening to his sister.
Many of my friends utilize this same concept, which means that we know exactly what’s going on when another person’s kiddos come up and place their hand on your arm. It’s also a good idea to point out to your children that not everyone follows these same rules. At my 4 year olds first week of karate, I kept watching him resting his hand on his instructor’s arm, and his instructor looking at him like, “what are you doing?” It was so cute and funny, and Aaron couldn’t figure out why his instructor didn’t know what that meant.
They aren’t always perfect. They still interrupt occasionally. With my older children, if they interrupt in a rude manner at this point, I will sometimes ask them to please go back to where they came from and try again politely. They’ll walk back out, and come back in and grab my attention politely. With gentle reminders, they quickly remember how to respectfully wait a turn and not interrupt. I want my children to be aware and thoughtful of how they grab someone’s attention. Whether it’s mine, another adult’s, or their friend’s, they need to be thoughtful of others as they are having conversations. If we teach our children from a young age to be respectful of other’s and the conversations that they are involved in (whether speaking or listening), they will grow up continuing to be people who are respectful of others. Because as great as my children are, and as great as their stories are, and as much as I want to hear them, they do need to learn that everything is not always about them.