Learning when not to interrupt your children's play

I was just about to call my daughter to come and make her bed. Then I heard her playing with her dolls. She was right in the middle of an intricate, fanciful story. I waited. After all, it was summer and the bed could come later. I might not have made that decision a few months ago.

But I had begun thinking about interrupting children at play. I had seen a mother call her child to leave a playground, stopping a cooperative venture at pushing some little children on a swing. After calling her son, the mother stood and talked for another 10 minutes while he waited around and drew in the dirt with a stick. What was more important for that child's development, I wondered, pushing younger children on a swing or digging in the dirt while waiting for his mother to finish talking?

Of course there are times when we must interrupt children's activities. The bus is coming, guests are due, or we have another schedule to meet. Those situations arise frequently enough. But what about the rest of the time when we need our child momentarily but could wait a short while until the child's activity is concluded? Might we not weigh our priorities at that time and decide that the child's playing is more important than the other activity, at least for the moment?

I was alerted to unnecessary interruption when I found myself saying to my daughter, ''Don't interrupt me; can't you see that I'm talking?'' Children often interrupt adults as they are talking. Then I thought back. Had I not, just minutes before, interrupted her while she was playing with a friend? Had I not asked them to stop their play to pick some lettuce for our lunch? Granted, the children love to pick lettuce, but if I had waited just a few minutes, they would have been in transition from one activity to another. I could have had my lettuce while they could have finished their play.

If we interrupt children thoughtlessly, we can expect that same behavior from them. If we wait patiently for them to finish their discussion and then make our request, we can expect the same behavior on their part.

What criteria can we use to determine whether an activity is too important to interrupt?

Clearly I thought telling a story with dolls was that important. Finishing a story is a difficult task, requiring creativity and the application of many ''rules'' for how stories are concluded. Fantasy play is important work. Its benefits far outweigh those of many other activities.

Reading is another activity I rarely disturb. ''Just till the end of the chapter?'' is a request I usually honor. It is reasonable. How often I've been in the middle of a chapter when the phone has rung. I don't like to stop then, either. Nor do I interrupt when my child is writing something. It is hard to return to writing and gain the same kind of momentum after an interruption.

A lot depends upon the home situation of the child. If a child is an only child, as our daughter is, I rarely interrupt group play. She has few enough opportunities to play with a group of children. That activity is important for her. On the other hand, if a child comes from a large family and seldom has time to play alone, I think I would try not to interrupt solitary play.

Interrupting children is something many adults don't think about. We absent-mindedly call our children when we need them. Yet if we pause for a moment, we uphold the following concepts: that a child's activity is as important as adult activity; that children deserve the same consideration and respect we give to adults; and that adults are powerful models of gracious behavior.

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