As often happens, over the weekend I ran into a client at the grocery store. Mid aisle we stopped for a brief greeting. As soon as the mom began to speak to me, her son piped up with, “Mom, Mom, can we get some Gatorade?” tugging at her jacket.
“Please don’t interrupt me,” she calmly reminded her son and rewound the tape to complete her thought with me.
“Excuse me. Excuse me, Mom? Mom? Excuse me.” he demanded.
“Wait a minute, Steven. I am talking to Betsy,” Mom admonished.
“But Mom, I said ‘excuse me’”
Offering me an apologetic shrug , Mom paused our conversation to answer her son. “What, Steven?” Emphasizing the word what, there was a bite in her response.
Ah yes, manners. Right after parents teach their two year olds to say please and thank you comes the excuse me lesson. It’s as if they are following a set of directions that came dangling from the baby’s big toe. You say ‘excuse me’ when you burp or toot (pass gas). You say ‘excuse me’ when you accidentally bump into someone. And if I am talking to someone else and you want to talk to me, you say ‘excuse me.’
Sound the gong! This lesson is faulty. When did interrupting become okay? If there is a tarantula crawling up my back, then by all means, interrupt me. And you don’t even need to say excuse me. But otherwise, it’s not okay to interrupt someone when she is talking. Emergency, yes; impatience, no. Kids need to learn this reality. (And some spouses do, too!)
We parents sabotage this lesson by teaching our kids that excuse me gains them entry into the conversation. We also blow it by not expecting them to wait—a little waiting at a time which grows their tolerance and their ability to delay gratification.
Yes, we are talking about children, young children. And how hard it is for them to wait when they have something they’ve just got to say right now! But learning to wait and not interrupt is a lesson maybe even more important than learning to say excuse me. It is one thing to expect your child to wait five minutes while you talk. That’s a long time for a young child. It’s another to teach him that when you will finish your greeting, your thought, your sentence, and only then, it be his turn.
Here are some tips for squelching the interrupting habit:
- Limit the length of your adult conversations that don’t include the child. You will limit his frustration and grow his ability to wait…and not interrupt.
- When the child doesn’t interrupt you, praise his restraint.
- If your child is challenged by impulse control (and whose isn’t?), let him know you are going to have a quick conversation and you do not want to be interrupted. Then make it quick!
- Explain to your child, four and older, that it is only for an emergency that cannot wait that he may interrupt. (A pee pee that can’t wait counts!)
- Create a signal for your child to give you that means he is waiting to talk. The signal takes the place of saying excuse me. (A client shared with me that at her son’s school, the child is taught to gently put his hand on the teacher’s arm to say he needs her, and the teacher puts her hand back on his to signal that she knows he is waiting. Good idea!)
- Do not let excuse me work as a means for interrupting. After you have cautioned not to interrupt you, don’t be interrupted! Seems obvious, doesn’t it?
- Be mindful of not interrupting your child and use the same signal that he uses for you if you must.
- Remind all family members about interrupting. It isn’t okay for Daddy to interrupt the child to get to you either. Children absorb the lesson wherever it is being taught.