Our enjoyment of the children in our lives increases dramatically when we teach them how to be patient. Picture two sets of mothers talking together. One has a child who wants his mom to push him on the swing. She tells him that she’s busy talking, and he whines and pulls on her for five minutes until she finally gives in. With the other set of mothers, a little boy wants his mom to play on the teeter-totter with him. She says, “I’m talking to Mary right now; I’ll come over in a few minutes.” He waits patiently until she is done, or goes off to play with something else, checking back periodically to see when she’ll be ready. Who wouldn’t want their child to be more like that second little boy! Many people seem to think that patient children just naturally “come” that way, but in reality, patience is a skill that we can help children learn.
So how do we foster patience in the children we care for? Patience is really about children being able to regulate themselves, and there are several things we can do to help them learn.
When I first started working with groups toddlers, it seemed like mealtimes were especially hard. No matter how quickly I tried to get everyone seated and get the food out, it seemed like it was never fast enough. They just couldn’t wait, and it seemed to end with a melt-down as often as not. Finally, I took a deep breath and realized that since I couldn’t do it any faster, I needed to change my whole approach. And what I did was to slow down, and infuse the beginnings of meals with ritual. I used song and verse, and I did things in the exact same way each time. I washed children’s hands in the same order. I stopped between tasks and played finger-games with the group. And suddenly, even though the mealtime transition now took at least three times as long as it had before, the children were able to sit quietly and patiently through the whole thing. It was amazing! Ritual helps children to self-regulate (which leads to learning patience) by letting them know exactly where they are in the process.
Tell Them When
Another thing you can do to help children learn patience is to tell them exactly when they will be able to get what they want. Young children’s concept of time is linear, so to tell them “exactly when” is to tell them what will happen between now and then. If a child wants you to help her undress a baby-doll while you’re washing the dishes, you might say, “First I’ll finish washing this pot, then I’ll rinse it, and wipe my hands, and then I will help you with your doll.” If they want you to go upstairs with them but you’re busy paying bills, you might say, “I’m going to finish writing this check, then I’ll put it in the envelope, put a stamp and address on it, and put it by the door. Then I will come upstairs with you.” If, after a moment, she comes back and asks you again, you can say, “I’m done writing the check, and I’ve put it in the envelope. Now I’m putting the stamp and address on it, then I’ll put it by the door, and then I’ll come with you.” You can let her know exactly where you are in the process each time she asks, and this will help her learn patience. When you first start using this technique, keep it very short: “I’ll finish writing the check and then I’ll come up with you.” As they start to learn that you consistently come when you’re done doing what you say you’ll do, they can wait through more and more steps.
I also use this technique in conversation. If I’m talking to another person and a child tries to interrupt, I’ll tell him, “I’m talking to Oma right now. When I finish with her I’ll be ready to listen to you.” With a very young child, or a child who’s new to my program, I’ll just finish my sentence with Oma and then it will be the child’s turn to speak. If they want me to help them with something, I will tell them, “I’ll be able to help you when I’m done with my conversation. You’ll know I’m done when I come into the play-room.” Again, I won’t make a child wait too long. When I come, I’ll acknowledge, “You waited so patiently, and now I’m here to help you!” It’s really important to start small and work your way up, so that a child can rest in the knowledge that if you say you’ll come help in a minute, you really will (they don’t need to remind you again and again). If they’re very impatient, and have to remind me again anyhow, I will acknowledge this, too: “You’re having a hard time waiting, huh? What will you do while you wait? Why don’t you play with the fire-truck until I come?” Or, “Would you like to sit on my lap while I’m finishing up here with Oma?” Then I’ll wrap up my conversation with Oma, and say to the child, “Wow. You waited and waited, and now I’m finally ready.”
And finally, I use this technique when multiple children are attempting to talk to me at once. “First I’ll listen to Ashley, then to to Sonya, and then Chloe.” I always try to make sure that I give each child the turn that I’ve told them they’ll get, although they’ve often forgotten what they were trying to say by then. However, they’re always happy to make up a new story when they’ve gotten my attention! When children feel confident that they’ll get my attention when I say they will, they don’t feel the need to talk over each other, and it’s easier for them to learn to be patient.