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“But Mom/Dad, Why Can’t You Play Right Now?” How to Answer This Question Effectively and More When Working from Home with Children

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By Jennifer Jipson, Ph.D., Contributing Writer and Goddard School Educational Advisory Board Member

For weeks now, I’ve been spending my days shifting between multiple roles, and it isn’t getting any easier! When I’m working, I feel like I’m ignoring my children. When I’m attending to their needs, I feel guilty about not being able to make progress on work-related projects. When stress hits, I’ve often reacted to my children’s interruptions and emergencies with an abruptness that I later regret. I’m guessing many of you have experienced something similar at some point.

In this blog post, I share a practical strategy for how to interact with children in a way that respects their desire for your attention and your need to set boundaries that help you get some other things done. The approach is described by Dr. Marjorie Kostelnik and her colleagues as using personal messages. It’s a developmentally appropriate strategy that helps both parents and children achieve their goals while building trusting and affectionate relationships. In my role as a college professor, I teach it to college students who are learning to interact with preschool-aged children. It might seem awkward or too wordy at first, but it gets easier with practice. It pays off because the more your child hears you talk like this, the more tools she or he will have to control her or his impulses to interrupt.

The following is how it goes.

STEP ONE: Offer a reflection that describes your children’s perspective.

I think of this step as sportscasting, except instead of being on ESPN saying, “he shoots, he scores,” I’m in my home office having conversations like the following:

When my adorable child says: I’m tempted to say: Instead, I try to say:
“Moooom, you said we could make brownies!” I can’t right now. You’re frustrated that I can’t make brownies with you yet.
“Come see what I did!” I’m busy. You’re excited about your painting and you want me to take a look.
“I’m bored.” Shhhhh I see you’ve finished that episode of Daniel Tiger and you don’t know what to do next.

Describing a child’s perspective before reacting shows that we are trying to understand his or her point of view and that we care about his or her experience. It also gives us a few extra seconds to think about how to respond next.

STEP TWO: Share your own emotional reaction and explain why you feel that way.

STEP THREE: Tell your child what will happen next. Be sure to follow through!

These steps give children a chance to practice their developing perspective-taking skills and to improve their understanding of emotions. Then, by hearing parents share clear expectations for what will happen next, children can begin to develop strategies that will make moments of waiting easier.

Step One Steps Two and Three
You’re frustrated that I can’t make brownies with you yet. The people I work with are waiting for me to finish this project, and I want to get it done. After I give it to them, we can go to the kitchen together and make our special treat!
You’re excited about your painting and want me to take a look. I’m proud of you for working so hard on your art project. I’m on a conference call right now and I will come to see it as soon as the call ends. 
You’ve finished that episode of Daniel Tiger and you don’t know what to do next. It’s important to me that I have some time to get a few things done. I’d like you to find something you can do on your own right now. Do you want some help choosing a few puzzles to do?

When adults talk in clear, responsive and respectful ways, children’s self-regulation skills improve. It’s also important to model your respect for their activities. Instead of interrupting their play or media use, you might say something like, “It looks like you’re having a lot of fun drawing with chalk, I have a break now and it’d be nice to take a bike ride with you. Is this a good time?”

Full disclosure: As I’m writing this, I’ve been guilty of responding a bit abruptly to my youngest child’s plea for attention. it’s not easy to practice what I teach consistently. But when I catch myself responding with annoyance, I start over and try again. Many people give up on personal messages because it feels clumsy at first. My advice is to keep trying. Practice makes better (forget perfect), and we have a lot of opportunities lately to refine our skills in warmly-communicating clear and respectful boundaries with our children.

OPTIONAL ADDITION

Note – Planning can ease the pressure of competing responsibilities. One important strategy is providing young kids with a visual cue to your availability. In my house, when I can’t be interrupted, I put a note on my office door letting my older children know when I’ll be available next. With younger children, I suggest displaying a picture of Quiet Coyote or some other signal so that they know not to interrupt. Be sure to take it down when you’re better able to be interrupted.