You can hear the feet coming up the stairs, then the door opens without a knock. Hello, kids. Usually, it’s not a bad time, but you’re on a Zoom call and absolutely cannot be disturbed. You know that pre-planning and setting them up with an engaging activity is the way to go. Good mental note, but right now, you need the kids to understand that any talking, any interrupting, needs to stop and must stop immediately. So, you do what a lot of parents do: You give your kids a shush.
Shushing could work once, maybe twice, as a quick reminder of what a child is supposed to do, but it’s not a sustainable go-to move. “They’ll get used to it and a shush won’t carry any weight,” says Philip Zelazo, professor of child development at University of Minnesota.
The bigger problem is that the shushing sound gives kids what they’re after: attention. It becomes a reward and an encouragement for more disruptions, says Abigail Gewirtz, professor of family science and child development at University of Minnesota and author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place. What you really want is to ignore them when interruptions aren’t wanted.
Ultimately, you need a plan. Without one, you’re kind of screwed. “It’s your words against your child’s desires. You can say, ‘No’ or ‘Be quiet,’ but it won’t be the best long-term approach,” Zelazo says.
But the shush can be your opening. Use it, and afterwards debrief with your child. Say it’s not your preference and explain that you need quiet when you’re busy. Then recruit your child as a collaborator to create a solution. That’s the ultimate drawback with the shush. It’s a power play and it does nothing to develop their autonomy, Zelazo says. You want them to be able to engage themselves in an activity. More than that, you want them to want to do it.
Pretense can be a friend. Be direct and let your kids know the goal is silence, but create some mystery with your plan. Say that you’re both secret agents and when you’re on the phone, they need to be quiet so no one knows your whereabouts. Couple it with a signal – create one; this is your go-to move – which is the non-spoken cue for the mission. Kids already like to pretend, and, with the intrigue, staying quiet isn’t a task but part of a game in concert with you, Zelazo says.
If secret agents don’t resonate, try a superhero. Your kids get to take on traits they might not believe they have, and this kind of pretend can help them think more flexibly and last longer with a difficult task. The superhero provides a guide and framework for them to extend themselves. “If Superman can do it, and I’m Superman, I can do it,” Zelazo says.
You also need variety, because the same thing won’t continue to hold them. Again, plan with them and use activities that they particularly like. If it’s Legos, tell them beforehand that if you’re on a work call, you’re going to give them a special challenge. You’ll hold up a piece of paper – another unspoken signal – which you have at the ready and which has a number on it. They have to build something with that many pieces. It could as easily be a drawing with certain shapes or colors or noticing birds out the window.
The challenge is finding the right balance. If something is too easy, they won’t care or learn. If it’s too hard, they’ll get frustrated and there goes the quiet. But after that, there’s room to experiment. “We’re only limited by our imagination,” Zelazo says.
What also helps make a signal more effective is practice, Gewirtz says. Tell your kids how great they are at understanding that you need to work. Give them the rules: When your door is closed, they can’t come in. When they hear you talking, they must be quiet. Whenever you put a finger to your lips, they can’t talk. And be straight that you will ignore them if they try to. Then play a game with various scenarios. Door open. Door closed. You talking. You not. Ask them with each if it’s all right to come in or interrupt you.
Whether it’s in practice or when it counts, when they do it well, reward them with playing time, stickers, or tokens in a jar for something bigger — whatever’s motivating. Let them know the reward will come whenever they follow the rules.
“You want to set them up for success,” Gewirtz says, but also let them know that if they interrupt, there will be no prizes so there’s a consequence. Just be clear. Be judicious with this limitation, and be consistent.
As with everything, this might not go smoothly at first. But along with giving you work time, Gertwitz says that you’re giving your kids something they especially need in this current uncertainty: “the security of when they’re at home, they know what will happen.”