“Not now, I’m on the phone!” As parents we all know that young children need lots of time and attention. But what about when parents need time to talk on the phone without interruption?

Most preschoolers should be able to occupy themselves for about 10 to 30 minutes. That means you’re not being unreasonable in expecting some time to yourself to have a quick phone chat with a friend or to attend to some business or private matter. Of course if your call goes on for an hour or so, or if it’s the tenth straight phone call of the morning, you’re starting to ask a lot from someone who isn’t yet able to pass the time browsing through the daily newspaper.

Without this ability to easily amuse themselves for long periods, it’s not surprising then that preschoolers do spend a fair amount of time interrupting adults. While it might sometimes be annoying to parents it is more than likely your child isn’t really trying to annoy you, nor are they simply demanding your attention. Children like to know things. They may ask adults for information or to help them with something they are doing. They may also want you to share in the fun of their activities.

Like adults, when children speak they feel that what they have to say is important. Children need to learn polite ways of interrupting rather than speaking to you right away without waiting for acknowledgement. For some children this sense of urgency is further driven by the belief that they will forget what they want to say if they wait too long to say it. In any case, for many preschoolers sometimes it’s just plain hard to share Mom or Dad with others.

So, for the sanity of yourself and your child you should try and set things up in a way that will allow you time on the phone without interruptions, while also allowing your child to gain your attention in an acceptable way. If you spend too long on the phone and you ignore your child’s attempts to interrupt politely, they will probably learn to interrupt loudly and rudely — anything to get your attention.

It is a good idea to monitor your time on the phone while your child is with you. Try to keep your calls under 15 minutes or wait until your child is asleep before you make a longer call. If you know you are going to be on the phone for a while explain ahead of time to your child that you will be busy doing something important and you cannot be interrupted. Of course, no matter what is happening on the phone, if your child is hurt or in an unsafe situation you will want to respond to them immediately.

Setting simple rules will help your child learn about the need not to interrupt at certain times. Avoid a long list of rules — just two or three that are simply explained, such as: Play with your quiet toys until Mom or Dad is finished on the phone. Ideally, rules should tell your child what to do rather than what not to do. Positive instructions are more likely to be learned and followed than negative ones.

If you are having persistent problems with interruptions during phone calls it may be worthwhile practicing with your child just what to do when you are on the phone. Call your own number, or arrange for a friend to call and have a brief conversation (about 2 to 3 minutes). If your child continues to play, praise them for letting you speak on the phone. Max, I’m really pleased that you played quietly while I was on the phone. If they do not follow the rules tell them what to stop doing and what to do instead. You might like to encourage your child with something more tangible than praise by giving them a reward. In this case, tell your child what they can earn if they follow the rules — perhaps a favorite snack or a special activity when you are free.

Eventually, as your child learns to occupy themselves you will not need to remind them of the rules, rewards and consequences each time you are on the phone. Make sure though that the consequences of breaking the rules are consistent and make rewards less predictable by not always giving them out. Praising your child for occupying themselves when you are on the phone should be continued — they’ve earned it.


If you’re having trouble with interruptions during phone calls, try keeping a couple of quiet toys or activities stored near the phone to dig out quickly if your child begins to look for your attention. If the toys are only used when you are on the phone they will remain interesting.

Dr. Matthew Sanders is a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.