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Teaching children how to use the telephone

The phone rings. Meggie, age 2, answers: ``Hi.'' Caller: ``Oh, hi, Meggie. Is your mom home?''

Meggie nods.

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Caller: ``Meggie, your mom, is she home?''

Meggie: ``I think so.''

Caller: May I speak to her please?''

Meggie: ``Sure.'' Meggie drops the receiver on the table and runs out of the room.

Minutes pass. No Mom. More minutes pass. You hear people talking, footsteps. You wonder when they will discover that the phone is off the hook. You wonder if you should drive over to their house to tell them.

It's happened to all of us. Children love telephones. Unfortunately, they love them before they know how to use them. They gravitate toward phones the way they are drawn toward sticky candy, permanent-ink magic markers, and the irresistible urge to put crayon to wall. And it's really no wonder. Telephones are magical. They ring. They have buttons that play musical notes or dials that click. You can hear people talk to you that you can't see. And, of course, children watch adults using them all the time.

Like millions of mothers before me, I bought a small plastic phone to lure my two-year-old away from the real model with push buttons. That didn't work, either. As a last resort, I brought a ``real'' phone in from the garage. But without a dial tone and the friendly voice imploring my toddler to ``hang up and try again,'' it, too, held no interest for her.

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Since two-year-old Katie was not ready to act as an answering service, I began creating ways for her to learn to use the phone properly, under supervision.

First, she was allowed regular times to talk to her dad at the office. Occasionally, when she thought of someone else she wanted to talk to, I dialed for her but she did the talking. She had to begin her own conversations. That was a learning process with a built-in responsibility. She had to say something for the person on the other end of the line to know there was actually someone there. This was a particularly important lesson in our house as all of our relatives live lon g distances away, and grandmas and grandpas can't fully appreciate children's nods and smiles over long-distance lines.

When Katie was three, she could identify numbers. So, the phone game changed. I dictated phone numbers to her and she would dial. Within weeks, I accidentally found out she had memorized her dad's work number. One day she told me that ``Dad'' was on the phone and wanted to talk to me. I hadn't heard the phone ring. It hadn't. She had called him all by herself.

By the age of four, most children beg for the opportunity to chat with friends on the phone. I encouraged Katie to do this, knowing it was improving her verbal skills, but soon I grew tired of looking up so many phone numbers. So I did the next most logical thing: I made Katie her own phone book. Since she could not yet read, we pasted wallet-sized pictures of her nursery school friends next to their phone numbers in a small spiral-bound book. Actually, a large sheet of cardboard would have done

just as well. As she got older she wrote in their names. And as friends came and went, so went the pages.

Balanced with this fun part of telephoning, it's important that from the earliest age possible children gain a respect for the importance of the phone. They should be reminded that telephones are not toys. When people need us, phoning is often the quickest way.

When a child displays responsibility and interest in answering the phone for you, let them practice answering calls. Decide ahead of time how you want the phone answered. Children will more easily rise to the occasion if they know exactly what to say. Some families like having their children identify themselves when they say hello. Others prefer something like: ``Jones residence.'' In any event, be consistent.

Don't be tempted to stop the lesson there. Children should be prepared with what to say when asked if, for example, their mother is at home. We have found a simple ``Yes, she is. Just a minute please'' works fine. As they grow, young ones will begin to improvise with follow-up questions like ``Would you like to speak to her?'' -- but not, it is hoped, with ``I'll go get her. She's just taking a shower.''

Teach children never to acknowledge they're home alone. Have them say something like ``My mom is busy right now. May I take a message?''

It's also wise to explain to these new phone answerers why they shouldn't call for you at the top of their lungs while still holding the phone to their ears. And, of course, they should be encouraged to place the receiver down on a table and not drop it.

Telephone manners come naturally to those of us who have made our share of calls through the years. But for little ones this is a brand new and exciting learning experience. Taking a few minutes now to talk to our children about proper phone etiquette, while continuing to set a good example, will go a long way toward setting the groundwork for an effective and polite telephone conversationalist in the future.

Who knows, maybe the novelty of talking on the phone will have worn off before they become teen-agers.

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