When it comes to my kids' dialogue, Mom's the word

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I pick the kids up at 3:30 p.m., and we load the backpacks and lunch boxes into the car. Between the schoolyard and the parking lot, they ask me what we're doing this afternoon, what we're having for dinner, complain about the (still theoretical) dinner, and ask how many friends they can invite to their birthday parties six months hence. When we get into the car, it starts:

"Mom?"

"What?"

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"You know what we did in English today?"

"What?"

"We sang the 'C' song!"

"Mom?"

"Yes?"

"I'm thirsty."

"We'll be home in two minutes."

"Mom?"

"You know, I'm right here in the front seat. You don't have to say, 'Mom' first."

"OK. Mom?"

"What?"

"But Lola might think that I'm talking to her..."

"She's your big sister. You never talk to her."

I've explained it to them a million times. They can just talk. My ears are always on. They don't have to get my attention first. There are no other adults around; I'm not on the phone; I'm not reading. Only parents are constantly interrupted when they're not even doing anything.

Kids aren't all that interested in conversational efficiency. Children thrive on social engagement, the longer and more drawn out, the better. For them, anyway. Which leads us to the guessing games.

"Mom?"

"What?"

"Guess what I found on the playground today?"

"What?"

"Guess!"

"A toy?"

"No. Guess."

"I give up..."

"A bottle cap! Mom?"

"Umm hmmm?"

"Mom, did you hear me?"

"Yes."

"Guess who were the assistants today?..."

The guessing game has extended itself into the "Password" game. Luke blocks the doorway for us until we correctly guess his password. Most often it's "Sponge Bob," but when it's not, and I've run through all of his favorite characters, friends' names, and desserts, I tell him that the password is, "I'm bigger than you are and I win."

Telling them that they don't need to say "Mom" and wait for a reply when they talk to me didn't work.

Then I tried ignoring the bait, hopeful that they would just charge on with their statement/question/rude noise. I used to train dolphins when I was in graduate school, and one of my first lessons was that we should not reinforce a behavior if we wanted it to disappear from the animal's repertoire.

Answering was definitely reinforcing, right?

"Mom?" (Silence.)

"Mom?"

"Mommy?"

"Mom!"

"WHAT! WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT!"

It turns out that children are a bit more persistent than dolphins. And I don't remember ever yelling at the dolphins.

I realize that the ever-present "Mom?" is their emotional shorthand for checking in. Kids need to check in way more frequently than adults. They need to know that you're there, even when you're right there. Even when you've been right there for nine hours straight in the same enclosed, fast-moving vehicle. And when they're listening to music on their CD players, the exchange is double-length, and double-volume.

"MOM?"

"Yes?"

"WHAT CABIN ARE WE STAYING IN WHEN WE GET THERE?"

"Take off your headphones if you want to talk."

"WHAT?"

"TAKE OFF YOUR HEADPHONES."

"Why? I love this song."

"BECAUSE YOU CAN'T HEAR ME WHEN THEY'RE ON."

"You don't have to yell at me, Mom."

A lot of times when we're two feet away from each other and the kids say, "Mom?" I just smile and wave at them. Like the queen waving at her subjects. Who knows what people think when they me see me doing this in the car? Probably something like, "That woman must be nuts. She's waving to her kids in her own car." Well, yeah, I may look strange, but it's a coping strategy. Really.

"Mom?" is such a habit with my kids that even when their dad is around, they still resort to me first. Sometimes he preempts this by responding with, "Yes, dear?" in his best falsetto. "No, I mean the real Mom," is the usual reply.

Sometimes when their dad is around and someone says, "Mom?" I say, "Ask your dad!" This doesn't save me any words, but it should give me a break, and it's supposed to teach them that they can rely on their dad, too.

"Mom?"

"Ask your dad, sweetie."

"Mom - I mean, Dad?"

"What?"

"What's for lunch?"

"I'm not sure. Ask your mom."

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