Waiting is hard for young children who spent infancy being picked up, fed, and entertained. But it’s also inevitable. Around toddlerhood — really, as soon as they can understand — kids are asked for something altogether new: patience. This is tough for kids, but also important. Teaching little kids how to wait isn’t just instilling this virtue of patience in them; it shapes the kind of adults they’ll become.
Children need to learn to wait for many things, and for many reasons. They’re asked to wait their turn to play with a toy. They’re challenged to hold their pee while other kids finish using the toilet. And they’re expected to wait to cross the road so they don’t get run over by a car. That last one is perhaps the biggest lesson parents need to impart: waiting in order to remain safe. To young children, the concepts of danger and potential death are abstract, and a parent needs to find ways to illustrate the importance of waiting at a crosswalk or other dangerous situation in a way the child can understand.
“Where safety is factor, it’s important to clearly, respectfully and consistently explain your age-appropriate expectations while waiting,” says Grace Bounds, preschool education coordinator of Portland, Oregon preschool Growing Seeds. You can say something like, ‘While we’re waiting to be able to cross safely, I expect you to stand away from the edge of the curb, and look both ways two times,’ Bounds says.
With smaller acts of patience divorced from threats of death, parents can teach that waiting is its own reward. Take, for example, waiting to play after cleaning up. At the end of the chore, the child can move on to another activity, and that is the reward. If there are friends involved, this reward also leverages the desire to help. That means that waiting time is filled constructively, with the expectation that once everything is done, the reward is that they can move on to play.
But parents shouldn’t resort to bribes. Praising patience can be effective in instilling confidence, but adding the expectation of a physical reward can create issues. Tempting a kid with the promise of a future cupcake if they’re quiet while you’re on the phone sets up a dangerous precedent, says Krista Wigstadt, assistant educational director of Brooklyn Explorers Academy in New York.
“I always try to ask myself, ‘what type of adult do I want this child to become?'” Wigstadt explains. “Do I want them to be an adult that expects a reward for good behavior, or an adult that does the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do?”
Being patient by modeling patience is also incredibly helpful for parents. A kid’s not going to be patient if their dad is constantly freaking out about being on a schedule or stressing out about holdups. Parents who want patient children need to model patience, pure and simple, and to explain that virtue to their child.
Waiting can also be a lot of fun. Time spent on a subway platform or in line at a grocery store can provide prime bonding moments and represents chances for parent and child to get a little goofy together.
“If you have a child who is having a hard time being patient while you wait for something, and if you’re able to, get active. Ask the child to jump 20 times, or better yet, to count how many times you two can jump together,” Wigstadt says. “If you are engaged with your child, it’s amazing how patient they can learn to be.”
How to Teach a Kid to Wait
- Be consistent in explaining how to wait, particularly when safety is concerned.
- Make what naturally comes after waiting, like play after clean-up, is it’s own reward.
- Don’t bribe kids to wait because it might teach them to always expect a reward for reasonable behavior.
- Turn waiting into a game by being engaged during wait times with your child.