When you think about your child, what comes to mind? You might imagine their strong personality or unique temperament. You may think about their vivid imagination or special interests. But while you likely have many positive associations for your children, patience probably isn’t among them.
Children tend to be spontaneous and self-serving. They’re focused on meeting their own needs, and they may even come across as selfish or entitled. These traits are developmentally normal, especially in early childhood. While it can be part of their charm, it can also be exhausting for parents.
Promoting and teaching a child patience is one of the best skills a parent can instill in their household. But what is patience? And why is teaching patience to a child both difficult and important? Here are some considerations to keep in mind.
How to Explain Patience to a Child
Patience refers to being able to tolerate uncomfortable circumstances. Research shows that patient people tend to act calmly and rationally, even when faced with distress. Even if they get frustrated, they don’t take out their aggression on themselves or others.
You can teach your child about patience by explaining the concept in real-time. For example, if you and your toddler are waiting in line, you might say, We are being patient and waiting our turn. Even if they don’t understand the concept fully just yet, you are laying the groundwork for continued conversations.
Older kids will likely understand the concept quickly (even if they don’t necessarily like it). They have some experience of needing to wait for something they want.
You can reinforce their efforts by commenting on patience when you observe it. For example, you might say, I saw you chose to draw a picture while I made you lunch. I know you were hungry, and thank you for being patient while I finished cooking.
How to Teach a Child Patience
Even if you assume your child has no patience, that doesn’t mean they can’t learn. As you have likely realized, children absorb everything around them. They pay close attention to their caregivers, and they will often imitate how you react.
Model Patience Yourself
Telling your children to be patient is one thing. But actually emulating it yourself tends to be far more effective. After all, if you’re stubborn, impatient, and quick to anger, why should you expect your children to behave any differently?
Patience is something to practice! You can strengthen this skill with practice and awareness. The heart of patience starts with mindfulness. You will need to be comfortable waiting without the benefits of instant gratification.
The next time you find yourself becoming impatient, take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself what is and isn’t in your control. Try to focus on being more mindful rather than trying to control the situation.
You can even narrate this inner experience to your children. For example, when stuck in traffic, you might say, Wow! There’s a lot of traffic today, and we’re running a little late. I’m feeling a bit stressed, but there’s nothing I can do about it. What music should we listen to right now?
Remember that it’s perfectly reasonable to feel frustrated, angry, or scared while needing to wait for something. The key is recognizing those emotions without letting them define your actions. Modeling this difference to your children can be profound for their emotional well-being.
Ideally, you should also strive to be patient while parenting. That means remaining calm and unruffled when repeating certain things. It also entails staying consistent with your boundaries, even if you feel frustrated or overwhelmed.
Maintain Realistic Expectations
Any efforts to teach your child patience must be age-appropriate. It probably isn’t realistic to expect a three-year-old to another hour for a late dinner when they haven’t eaten since lunch.
Start with small increments. For example, you might pause thirty seconds before giving your toddler a book. Or, you can ask a school-age child to play with their toys while you finish sending an important email.
As your child gets older, you can encourage longer periods of waiting. Of course, it’s important that you also validate their feelings while they practice patience. Let them know it’s okay if they feel frustrated or upset with you. Encourage them to express their emotions productively.
Furthermore, don’t assume that tantrums or talking back mean that your efforts to teach patience aren’t working. Children can and will test boundaries- it’s part of how they learn autonomy. Giving in to their demands to avoid an adverse reaction will only counteract the values you want to promote.
Encourage Meaningful Waiting
Just because your daughter wants new jeans right now doesn’t mean you need to head out to the store. Likewise, even though your son broke his phone by acting carelessly, it doesn’t mean he gets an automatic replacement.
Purposeful waiting may entail implementing natural consequences. For example, you may have a rule that you only buy new clothes at the beginning of the school year or for birthdays. But if you don’t reinforce that rule, your child has no incentive to take it seriously.
Meaningful waiting encourages children to value what they have. It also reminds them of basic house rules and the consequences of breaching them.
You can also apply meaningful waiting for young children. For instance, your toddler might really want a cookie. Instead of giving in to their demand, you might say, I know you want a cookie! That sounds yummy. But I am not giving you any dessert until dinnertime is over. You can have your cookie then.
Committing to teaching your child patience is one of the best decisions you can make as a parent. After all, we can’t get everything we want! Patient people understand that life doesn’t always go according to plan, but they tend to be adaptive and resilient despite these setbacks.
Remember that patience ultimately starts with you. The more you try to be patient in everyday situations, the more your efforts will impact your children.