Q: My 4-year-old daughter, Molly, seems like she has no patience; she wants what she wants when she wants it. If I say, "in a minute," she reacts as if I've said "in a year." Is she still too young for me to expect her to wait her turn quietly and politely? How can I teach her the virtue of being able to wait?
A: It's true beyond a doubt that young children are not good at waiting for a turn or for anything else. When they have to wait (to arrive at a destination or for a drink, an event, or, very often, a turn), their behavior (whining, nagging) can annoy us to no end. But did you ever think of this: It annoys children to no end that their grownups can't wait, either. We're ready to take them to school, so we interrupt what they're doing, hustle them with a peculiar urgency, and become tiresome scolds. Most of us cannot wait five minutes for a child to finish what she's doing (and in a child's world, diddling around is "doing"). When we're ready to pop the kids in the tub, or get them out, we tend to be impatient with their interminable puttering. Parents and teachers are not good at waiting. Our focus is too often fixed on the schedule, and we often fall short when it comes to respecting a young child's occupations and pace.
So, the first thing to do to teach Molly to be more patient is to be more patient yourself. Think about how she observes you demonstrating patience in, say, a traffic jam. Or long lines. What about when you want a turn with something, perhaps the phone or the computer? When you have to wait, do you comment that it's hard to wait but you often have to do it? A little remark about the need for you yourself to be patient and wait is useful: it reduces children's impression that we constantly boss them around while being above rules and criticism ourselves.
Modeling patience includes giving time-specific alerts (two minutes for 2-year-olds, five minutes for 5-year-olds). "In four minutes, it will be time to put your shoes on (or come for your bedtime story)," you might tell Molly. Stay busy: no doubt you have a great many things to do, but also stay cheerful and be a person of your word. Do what you said needed to be done in four minutes. Preschoolers cannot distinguish the difference between "a minute" and "20 minutes." These concepts are too abstract. But a fringe benefit of a frequently implemented policy involving a particular number of minutes of "prep" time is that young children gradually learn how long "x" number of minutes feels, part of an early childhood math curriculum. They also develop a subconscious sense of the need to allow themselves time to finish one thing and prepare for the next. It's funny that, in spite of the way we rush children, we often make them wait for us to be ready after we've rushed them! If we have a hurry-up-and-wait style, our children are not likely to take us seriously when we say it's time to do this or that.
At school, taking turns usually refers to taking turns with objects or opportunities, and this can be the case at home, too. But at home, taking turns most often concerns taking turns with the parents' attention. We don't have as many "arms" as an octopus does, and cannot simultaneously fix Frankie's tangled toy, read Ginny's story, pour Joyce's juice, and rescue Ralphie from where he's stuck under the sofa.
Make — and Maintain — a Plan
The ability to plan is an invaluable skill when living and working with young children, and nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to helping children wait for a turn.
1. Plan something for the "waiter" to do while waiting, such as: pick up toys, brush teeth, and listen to a favorite story while a brother splashes in the bath; wash the pot while waiting to stir the chocolate pudding; stir the pudding while waiting to lick the spoon; or run an errand with Dad while waiting for a friend who is coming over for a playdate.
2. Plan a distraction. Help your child get into playing with a different toy of equal appeal while waiting for the momentarily coveted toy.
As in most aspects of childrearing, we are impatient with behaviors that — if we're honest — we have, too. Changing ourselves is the best way to encourage change in our young children.
The Path to Patience: Age-Appropriate Expectations
2s: Twos can learn to wait a minute or so while you fill the bottle, tie Sharon's shoelace, watch Carrie have the first turn to pat the cat, or let Matt finish examining that marvelous new whirly toy. But don't expect much tolerance for waiting from a two! Fingerplays and nursery rhymes offer delightful distractions to twos who must wait at the doctor's office or in line at the market. And don't leave home without a book!
3s and 4s: Threes and fours need to be distracted with an interesting alternative to what they're waiting to do: "Ride your tricycle to the fire hydrant and back while Sophie has her turn holding the puppy, and then it'll be your turn." Stand by and be sure that Sophie soon yields the puppy to Harry so they will both see that they can count on you to be fair. As children learn to count and sing, encourage them to do so to help pass the time.
5s & 6s: Fives and sixes enjoy managing turn taking and waiting for turns themselves if an adult sets up a system. In kindergarten, teachers sometimes use a concrete turn-taking system, such as asking each child who wants a turn to hang his name tag on a numbered hook (hook 1 for the first turn, 2 the second turn and so on) or write his name on a list. You can try variations of this idea at home, especially with siblings.
Polly Greenberg has been a child-development specialist for almost 50 years. She has 17 grandchildren.
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