The Importance of Tarry Time*

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969), “to tarry” is to wait until another catches up. “Tarry time” is defined as the time between one end point and the next beginning point in speech. It is the amount of time between one distinct verbal utterance and the next. Tarry time is measured by the amount of silence that occurs during the verbal communication of two individuals, expressed as a percentage of the total observation time.

I created this terminology and its meaning for my doctoral dissertation (1979). The rationale for tarry time is its relationship to the amount and intensity of verbal communication occurring between two individuals. It was hypothesized that if two individuals are more intensely engaged in verbal activity, there will be less tarry time. There was no research on tarry time prior to my dissertation, although similar terminology, “wait time,” is used to describe the amount of time a teacher waits for a child to respond.

Why am I telling you all this? I have been thinking about how and when we listen and respond to our children. What I have been noticing is that adults “tarry” less in dealing with young children than with older children and adults. If the length of time we are willing to wait for a reply is any indication of respect, then this is another example of how we fail to respect children.

Infant in prone position holding object during RIE® Parent Infant Guidance™ Classes

While I was taking a class with Magda Gerber at Pacific Oaks College, we were sitting on the lawn in a semicircle and had been asked to quietly observe an infant who could pivot and barely turn over. She was carefully placed on a small blanket in the center of our circle. She looked at us and then looked at and fingered the flower design on the blanket. 

After rolling over, she suddenly found herself lying on the grass and, except where her diapers covered, it was touching her skin. It took her more than 15– 20 seconds to respond to the grass by crying at the new tickling stimulus. I learned much right then. Later, a fly landed on her leg, a street noise was heard, and the infant’s mother talked to her. In each case, I could plainly see that she required several seconds to respond to the external stimulus.

While he was in Fairbanks, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton showed parents that when an unborn child was in utero and a large noise or light was heard or shown, the fetus first startled strongly, then less, and finally turned her head away from the stimulus and even put her thumb in her mouth, (T. B. Brazelton, personal communication, 1978). Our bodies have internal capabilities to comfort us, but for the first few months of life, it takes time for the body to respond to external stimuli. Because of this time lag, when an infant is overloaded with stimulation, her nervous system is responding to an earlier external stimulus than the one being taken in now. So it is that what made the child quiet may have been an earlier stimulus, rather than the current calming effort of the adult. For instance, a baby may actually be calmed by your soft talking, but not respond until 20 seconds later when you happen to be bouncing her. You may mistakenly think that it was the bouncing which calmed the baby. Right from birth it is important to learn your child’s response rhythm. I am sure you have seen a crying baby whose mother keeps trying things to stop the child from crying: standing up, shushing, sticking a pacifier in her mouth, tickling, and bouncing. Everything except waiting. Only by waiting what seems like a very long time can you observe the actual reactions of your baby to your actions. It is equally important not to push it by expecting that when we say something there should be an immediate response. It doesn’t work that way.

I am a strong advocate of talking to your child right from birth and telling him what you are going to do before you do it. When you go to a doctor or dentist you probably expect to be told what he or she is going to do before doing it, or you might not come back again. 

Does the following sound familiar? Your child comes up to you and says, “Mom, look at my drawing.” “That’s nice, but let’s go,” you urge. “I have to attend a meeting tonight.” How much longer would it take to kneel or bend down and listen to your child? It might take an extra two minutes, but it is extremely important to your child to have all of your attention for those two minutes.

Infant laying on back intently inspecting a wooden rattle held in their hands.

So let’s say your child comes to talk to you, and you listen, really listen. Next try to extend your tarry time. I think the following may happen. The child might tell you more, expand with more descriptive words. The interaction between the two of you will become more respectful, because you are being thoughtful of what your child is trying to tell you. Try to count 1,001 . . . 1,002 . . . to yourself before responding. Then try to go to 1,003 and 1,004. 

Teachers can also learn to use tarry time. I know that the momentum must be maintained in the classroom, but often questions with only one right answer are presented to the class. Such questions cannot elicit thoughtful responses that several children could feel successful giving. Also, if teachers would consciously wait for a response so the child could think an answer through, more learning would take place. In addition, a more respectful atmosphere would grow in the classroom, benefiting both children and teachers.

Diana Suskind, EdD, RIE Associate lives and works in Leomister, MA.

Published in Educaring, 6(4), Fall 1985.


Suskind, D. (1979, October). The effect of varying degrees of encapsulation on verbal communication, tarry time, and imaginative play behaviors of young children. (Doctoral dissertation). University of Illinois: Urbana, IL.

Tarry (1969). In William Morris (Ed.), American heritage dictionary of the English language. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

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