Parenting Q & A

Ellen Barrett, a parent educator at Heights Parent Center for the last 12 years, fields questions from parents about the daily ups and downs of parenting. The same issues affect many parents. If you have questions for Ellen, e-mail her at

Q. No matter how much quality time I spend with my 3-year-old, the minute I am on the phone call or computer, my daughter seems to haven an immediate need! How can I help her understand that sometimes she has to wait?

A. It is likely that your daughter really has no idea that she is doing anything wrong. Three-year-olds are egocentric. Because they tend to be loud and persistent, parents are often guilty of reinforcing that behavior. In other words, probably in the past when your child has loudly and repeatedly said "Mommy, mommy, mommy!" you’ve finally responded with "What!" There are several effective ways to help you get through this normal, but frustrating, developmental stage.

  • Help her notice when you are engaged in a conversation or busy with something else. For example, say something like, "Mommy is talking to Mrs. Smith. I’ll listen to you next." Don’t make her wait too long. Come to a reasonable stopping point in your conversation and then tune in to her. As time goes on, she learns that you will listen and she’ll be able to wait for longer periods of time.
  • Teach her to use touch as a way of communicating. Show her how to touch your hand or arm instead of shouting. In response, you return the touch, letting her know you "heard" her and are aware she needs you.
  • Use "reverse waiting" as a strategy for modeling. For example, if you need her attention, but she is in the middle of a puzzle, say "I can see you’re busy with that puzzle, please look at me as soon as you finish."
  • Give warning when possible. If you know you’ll be on the phone for a while, prepare your child by telling her you will be busy for the next few minutes. Ask her if there is anything she might need and have something ready for her to do.
  • Be sure to praise her when she has waited for you and then give her the attention she’s been waiting for.
Of course, there are times when your daughter really needs you right away (someone is hurt or she has to go to the bathroom). Assess the situation to see if it can wait. Gradually, with time and maturity, she will learn to distinguish between what is urgent and what feels urgent and how to pay attention to other people’s needs as well as her own.
Read More on "Got kids?" Corner
Volume 3, Issue 4, Posted 1:50 PM, 02.18.2010