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Kids Should Respect Your 'I'm Busy' Signals

Parenting: Experts advise limits on the phone calls to you at work.


Some strange telephone conversations are going on in workplaces around the country.

"Where did you hide the potty chair, sweetie?" . . . "Now exactly how did your brother's foot get in your mouth?" . . . "Check your backpack again. Your homework didn't just walk away."

These days of two-career families and programmable phones that allow kids to reach out and pester someone have created a frequently clandestine workday ritual: parenting over the phone.

Some supervisors hate it. Some companies forbid it by strictly controlling personal phone calls. But most parents--particularly, let's face it, moms--do it. If you've got a kid or two or more at home with or without a caregiver in attendance, some form of daily check-in usually occurs. Variations include touching base with an elderly parent or other relative.

Bosses would be better off condoning, or at least not blocking, the daily check-in, said parenting expert Bonnie Michaels, who has developed a course on phone parenting. Employees, often putting in longer hours under more stress because of downsizing, will be more productive if they aren't distracted by worry about those they've left at home, she said.

As in all things parental, there are right ways and wrong ways to phone mothering and fathering.

Mari Bellas has plenty of experience. Bellas said she calls once a day to check on her son, Nikos, 6, and daughter, Franceska, 4, who are home with a nanny.

"I want him to know that it's important to me how his day went at school. . . . I wait till Nikos gets home and then I talk to Franceska too," said Bellas, who works for the statewide child advocacy coalition Children Now. Bellas also writes a weekly parenting column the daily Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion.

Sometimes the calls from home get out of hand, she said.

"They may think they have the biggest crisis, but to me it's something minor. They'll call just to let me know that something broke on their bike or the ball went over the fence," Bellas said.

When that starts to happen, Bellas said, she sits down with the children and explains the rules: one check-in a day; otherwise, call only if there is a big problem.

"You have to set limits," agreed Michaels, president of Managing Work & Family Inc., an Evanston, Ill., company that helps firms set up family-friendly policies and provide parenting training for employees.

She suggests that you tell your supervisor you need to make daily contact with a child or an elderly parent and that you need to be available should a crisis occur. But also make clear that you will not be spending a significant amount of time on personal calls, said Michaels, co-author of "Solving the Work/Family Puzzle," which is distributed by her company.

"You don't want to make the boss mad, so it has to be handled quickly," she said.

The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open with the child, Michaels said. She even recommends that parents take a basic communications workshop to polish their skills.

"One of the basic principles is trying to listen and decode when you can't see the child," she said. Michaels knows firsthand; she was a single mother and now is a working grandmother.

"My daughter used to call me and say, 'I'm sick.' I had to figure out if she was really sick or lonesome or bored," Michaels said. "Does it need immediate attention or can it wait?

"So many times, parents get mad and say, 'I know you're not sick,' " she said. Michaels recommends using phrases such as "Tell me more" to get the child to talk. Acknowledge the child's feelings but explain that you are working and can't stay on the phone very long.

Michaels suggests using lines such as:

* "It sounds as if you've had a bad day at school. I'd really like to hear more about it in person instead of over the phone, so let's talk about it when I get home."

* "Mom, you sound frustrated.

I'd like to be able to help you solve this problem. May I call you when I get home this evening?"

Always wrap up the conversation with an affirming message such as "I love you and can't wait to see you" or "We'll play when I get home tonight," Michaels said.

Her company has put together a video training program for supervisors called "Another Call From Home? The Work/Family Conflict" that teaches supervisors "how to be more supportive and still get the work done," she said.

"Parents often feel so pressured at the workplace," Michaels said. "We train supervisors to be more sensitive to the issues that working parents are facing."

Laura Segall found that her 5-year-old daughter's telephone skills came in handy when a new nanny was sending the girl to a neighbor's house each day so the nanny could take a nap.

"Katie knew that wasn't right, and she called me," said Segall, manager of the Welk Resort Center in San Diego. "I like that. She knows she can get ahold of me if she really needs me."

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