It’s like clockwork: the second you get on the phone your little one starts tugging your sleeve and demanding your attention with ever increasing determination. Telling him, “I’ll be off in a few minutes” only seems to fuel his frustration. He wants to play, and he wants to play now!
Is it even possible for a preschooler to learn how to be patient? The answer is a qualified yes, according to Dr. Maggie Mamen, an Ottawa-based clinical psychologist, and author of The Pampered Child Syndrome and the DVD Parent Power. “There is a correlation between age and the concept of waiting – the older the child gets, the more they can hold off on getting something they desperately want,” she says. “Most research indicates that children don’t have the capacity to be really patient until age six or seven. It’s a developmental ability. But it’s also a learned behaviour. If children are not taught to wait, they won’t learn it.”
Kids look to their parents to teach them. Unfortunately, in a society where instant gratification is paramount, many adults also have trouble being patient. “These days, you really don’t have to wait for anything,” says Dr. Mamen. “You want to take your furniture home today and pay next year? Fine.” The consumer industry is largely based on the concept that faster is better, she says.
Dr. Mamen sees a lot of parents who have a hard time with the idea that their child might want something but can’t have it. “To some parents, the idea of disappointing a child is tantamount to abuse. They have no concept of the idea of short-term pain for long-term gain. But learning to wait for things is an important lesson for children. Parents need to really buy into the idea that waiting for something doesn’t do a child harm; in fact, it does a lot of good.”
Being patient – whether that means waiting your turn in line or sitting quietly while the teacher finishes her work before doling out snacks – is part of being well socialized. “Patience is very important when it comes to relationship building.” If kids don’t learn how to wait for things, and about give-and-take, having successful relationships will be a lot harder.
Tips for teaching patience to children
Patience comes with maturity, but it can also be learned. Dr. Maggie Mamen, an Ottawa-based clinical psychologist, and author of The Pampered Child Syndrome and the DVD Parent Power, offers these ways to help your little one learn to wait it out:
Practise being patient yourself. If you are constantly drumming your fingers on the steering wheel in traffic and muttering to other drivers to hurry up, it teaches your child that being impatient is okay. Instead, try to use those situations as an opportunity to talk about how unforeseen circumstances are sometimes beyond our control, and that getting upset only makes things worse.
Be consistent. If you tell your child, “After mommy gets off the phone, we’ll go to the park together,” be sure to follow through.
Don’t reward impatient behaviour. Waiting patiently means just that. You need to build credibility. If you promise something to reward their patience, make sure you deliver. Your child will soon learn the value of waiting.
Use a timer. Tell your child that you will go to the park in 10 minutes when the timer goes off. (An analog timer lets your child see the minutes ticking down.) Preschoolers don’t have an understanding of the concept of time, but they understand that when the bell goes off, it’s time to go play on the swings.
Do activities that demonstrate the value of being patient, such as baking and gardening. Watering a seed every day and watching it grow into a plant is the ultimate illustration of patience paying off (and that batch of chocolate chip cookies only takes 30 minutes to ooey-gooey perfection!).
Play games that require patience. Card games and board games are great ways to teach your child to wait his turn to roll the dice or collect all the cards needed to win. (They are also a good way to teach him how to lose graciously if his patience doesn’t pan out.)
Encourage your child to save her allowance or birthday money to buy something she really wants. When she finally has enough, she’ll realize that good things come to those who wait.
Originally published in ParentsCanada, April 2012