Little Joey Jackson is the picture of sweetness in his blue sailor hat -- which he has, at age 3, developed a borderline obsession for wearing.
Sitting on the kitchen floor, little Joey is a cutie. A honey, even.
A honey, that is, until his mother gets a telephone call. And then, Joey becomes a hellion, grasping for attention, interrupting even the shortest conversations.
"At first," says his mother, who had vowed to stay home with Joey until he enters kindergarten, "I thought I was raising a really mean little kid, a kid who demands much too much attention." But then she talked to her friends and found that something about the ring of a telephone triggers feelings deep in a child's psyche.
Perhaps it is genetics. Perhaps it is some vestige left over from the evolutionary process, as in: "Mother's not paying attention. If she doesn't pay attention soon, a large carnivore will come by and eat me. I must make sure she pays attention."
So the mother is on the telephone, and the child starts to talk to her.
Only moments before, the child was oblivious to his mother's presence. Nothing could have turned his attention to her. But get on the telephone -- or pick up a book, or try to take a warm bath, or have a conversation with another adult in the grocery checkout line -- and a child suddenly is riveted to his mother's side.
"It's very annoying, because 15 minutes on the telephone doesn't seem like a lot to ask, but to that child, it's like someone coming in and stealing his mother," says Jane Richards-Jones, program director for Creative Parenting, a state-funded program that is part of the Parent Training Consortium of New Britain, Conn.
What a child wants more than anything is to feel significant and to belong, she says. Children are not significant when a parent's attention is directed to some other activity, and they are painfully aware of that. And so they make you painfully aware, too.
"When you're not busy, you're right where the children need you," says Nancy Robinson, who cares for six children in her family day-care business, in addition to raising her own two children. "It's almost like a craving someone has for chocolate. It could be around the house for months and then all of a sudden, because it's not there anymore, you want some."
Even the best-mannered child may slip when Mom or Dad is otherwise occupied, Robinson says. But it's an important part of developing into happy and well-adjusted adults.
"It's just like learning what you're going to have to deal with later in life," she says. "Not everybody can tend to you every second. They learn this at an extremely young age. They understand a lot more than some people give them credit for."
The best time to deal with the interruption issue is before it happens, Richards-Jones says. When it occurs, most parents don't think rationally.
"A lot of times, if I am going to be on the phone, I tell them beforehand: 'I am going to be on the phone. I have to make a phone call. Do not bother me,' " Robinson says.
Richards-Jones suggests holding a family meeting, if children are school-age, or explaining to the smaller children that Mommy or Daddy has to talk on the phone for a while, and soon she will play with them.
Or store quiet activities, such as games or coloring books, near the telephone to distract the children while talking on the telephone.
"Then, they can sit in your lap and play quietly while you talk," she says.
Parents also can develop a series of hand gestures that let the children know that this is not the time to initiate a conversation. A finger dragged across the throat in an animated throat-slitting works nicely for Richards-Jones. Letting a slightly older child answer the telephone may make him or her feel more a part of the process, she says.
The important thing to remember is live up to your word: If you tell your child you're only going to talk for 15 minutes, talk for 15 minutes and be done with it.
"We can use our wits instead of responding to everything from an emotional base, and we can solve virtually every parenting issue," says Richards-Jones. "The idea of backing off and thinking about it and involving the kids really helps. It also helps to understand that it's developmentally appropriate."
Parents can take comfort that this, too, passes. "Although," says Richards-Jones, the mother of two children, ages 7 and 10, "I have a feeling this continues until they leave the house."