Teaching your child patience is no small task. The following tips will make it a little easier.
Most children go through phases where they want everything right away, whether it’s an object or their parents’ attention. However, as they grow up, they learn that sometimes they have to wait and be patient.
At what age do children gain the ability to wait?
A child’s ability to wait changes significantly as they get older. Before the age of 1, a child doesn’t yet understand that they’re their own person, separate from their parent. Waiting therefore makes them insecure.
Before the age of 3, kids usually react intensely (e.g., by crying, screaming, or stomping their feet) when they have to wait, because they have difficulty understanding someone else’s point of view. They can still learn to be patient, but it’s important to explain to them why they can’t have what they want right away. Concrete references (e.g., an hourglass or timer, the time it takes to sing a song) can help them understand how long they need to wait.
From the age of 4 onwards, children understand the concept of waiting fairly well and can tolerate a certain delay before their requests are addressed. Since they also have more autonomy, they’re able to keep themselves occupied for short periods while they wait by playing games or doing activities they like (e.g., doing puzzles, looking at books, drawing).
How should you react when your child is impatient?
You’re busy, and your child is trying everything to get your attention. Find out how to get them to be patient.
- Ask yourself whether your child is seeking your attention because of a need or a desire. A need, such as being thirsty or having to go to the bathroom, has to be met quickly, whereas a desire, such as wanting to play with a toy, can wait.
- Don’t respond too quickly or too slowly to your child’s requests. If you respond too quickly, your little one won’t learn to wait and adapt. However, if they want to talk to you about something and have to wait too long (more than 5 or 10 minutes), they might think you don’t care about what they have to say.
- Set limits and be consistent. Though it seems easier sometimes to just give your child what they want right away, remember that doing could teach them to be impatient.
- Be tolerant. A child thinks of themself before anything else, so it’s normal for them to express their needs and desires. However, as a parent, you can help your little one understand that some requests are acceptable, while others aren’t or have to wait a bit.
Using clear references such as “after lunch,” “before bath time,” or “when you get home from daycare” helps your child be patient because these are familiar moments in their daily routine.
- Use routines to help your little one understand when they’ll get what they want. This is an effective strategy because routines are reassuring to young children. For instance, you might say, “I’m making lunch right now. I can listen to your story while we eat. After lunch, I’m going to put the dishes away, and then we can go play in the living room.” Here’s another example: “I’m changing your little sister’s diaper right now, so I can’t look at your drawing. But you can show me when I’m done and she’s sitting in her chair, okay?”
- Help your child talk about their impatience. For example, you can ask them how they feel in their body and in their heart when they have to wait. Do their hands and feet start to fidget? Does their mind get crowded with lots of thoughts? Do they feel sad, or maybe even mad? Helping your child name the physical sensations and emotions they experience will make them feel heard and understood, which will make it easier for them to cope when they need to be patient.
- Be encouraging. For example, tell your child they were very good at waiting the last time you changed their little sister’s diaper, and you know they can do it again this time.
- Make waiting easier and more fun by appealing to your child’s imagination. For example, you can tell them that they’re the superhero of patience, or that they have the magical power to make time speed up when they have to wait.
- Praise your little one when they manage to be patient.
Helping your child be patient
Although your child can anticipate situations by observing familiar gestures, it’s still difficult for them to estimate how long they have to wait, especially if they feel their request is urgent.
See how mom Catherine is teaching her child patience (video in French).
- Put words to what your child is feeling. In addition, tell them why they need to wait and when you can give them your full attention. This will make the wait more bearable for them, and they’ll understand that you’ve heard them and will be available soon. For example: “I’ll read you a story after I finish cleaning up the kitchen. You see, I’m scrubbing the counter, and then I have to put the dishes away. I know you’re excited for storytime, but I also know that you can wait.”
- Give your child concrete aids to mark the time and help them wait. For example, you can place little animal stickers on a clock and ask them to wait until the big hand is on one of the animals.
- When your child has to wait, suggest an activity to keep them busy. You can also put together a small bin of books and toys so they can stay close to you while they wait. If you’re nearby, the time will go by a little more quickly. You can also try asking if they want to become your assistant. Instead of waiting, they can have fun participating in daily tasks. Young children often want to “help” their parents and do the same things they do.
- If you can’t answer your child because you’re on the phone, for example, give them a wink or a thumbs-up to signal that they need to wait. This shows that you’re not ignoring them and will help them be patient.
- If your child has to wait a few days for something, show them how to count the number of sleeps left on a calendar. This will help them situate themself in time, and they’ll gradually understand that the long-awaited day will soon arrive.
Group activities to help practise patience
The following games are centred on the concept of taking turns. Understanding this concept makes it easier for your child to wait in various everyday situations. Feel free to participate in these games, especially if your little one is an only child.
Play telephone with a toy phone. In this game, kids learn that they can’t always be the one holding the receiver.
Create a collective drawing by having children take turns doodling on a sheet of paper. Congratulate them once the drawing is finished.
Play the hat game (in French), where players imitate what the person wearing the hat does. The hat wearer gets to perform three actions before the hat is passed to someone else.
Go around the group and ask each child a fun question, such as what their favourite animal or food is. You can use an object (e.g., a talking stick) to clearly indicate whose turn it is to speak.
Play a musical rhythm, then ask the children to imitate what they just heard. This gets them to alternate between listening and imitating.
Things to keep in mind
Before the age of 1, waiting makes a child feel insecure.
If your child is demanding, responding too quickly to all of their requests might teach them to be impatient.
It’s difficult for young children to estimate how long they have to wait, so it can be helpful to mark the time in concrete ways.
Scientific review: Solène Bourque, psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: February 2021
Sources and references
Bourque, Solène. Les grandes émotions des tout-petits : comprendre et soutenir les apprentissages émotionnels chez les 2 à 6 ans. Éditions Midi trente, 2020, 144 pp.
Amsallem, Baptiste. Clément est impatient. Éditions Auzou, 2012, 16 pp. (age 18 months and up)
Bergeron, Alain M., and Sampar. À table les oiseaux! Montreal, Éditions Michel Quintin, “Petit Billy Stuart” series, 2019, 32 pp. (age 3 and up)
Lebel, Nicole, and Francis Turenne. Je suis patient. Sainte-Ursule, Fablus, “Phil & Sophie” series, 2013, 25 pp. (age 3 and up)
Rivard, Émilie. Ding! L’impatience. Boomerang, 2014, 24 pp. (age 4 and up)
Rousseau, Lina, and Marie-Claude Favreau. Galette est patient. Saint-Lambert, Dominique et compagnie, “Gallette et Tartine” series, 2016, 24 pp. (age 3 and up)
Rousseau, Lina, and Marie-Claude Favreau. Chacun son tour. Saint-Lambert, Dominique et compagnie, “Gallette et Tartine” series, 2019, 24 pp. (age 3 and up)