Patience can sometimes feel like an impossibility for our kids, especially our little ones and their developing brains. But patience is a skill, and you can practice skills, so I thought we could take some time today to go over a few ways we can help our kids to practice patience, which will in turn, increase those patience skills.
But that’s the catch – the only way to have more patience is to practice. I can’t tell you how often throughout the day I’m muttering to myself under my breath, God give me patience. But I know what’s happening is that I’m actually asking for opportunities where my patience is going to be tested, so I can practice!
Alright, so patience with our kiddos – we talk about it a lot on the blog – but it’s all about self-control and delayed gratification. We did a post a few weeks ago on self-regulation and self-control which was great, so if you haven’t read that one yet, I’d recommend you go back and give it a read. The thing about patience, self-control, and self-regulation is that these are such real-world skills.
I tell my girls all the time, patience isn’t just waiting. It’s how you’re waiting. It’s being able to wait without complaining, without getting angry or throwing a fit. These are such gifts we’re giving our children if we can help them cultivate it. Kids who grow up into patient adults have better physical health, better mental health, stronger interpersonal relationships, they’re better equipped to reach goals they set and have a positive impact on the world around them.
But how do we help them practice it? How do we teach it? We know that kids show greater self-regulation as they get older. But young kids are still able to wait to a certain extent. So, we take into account their age, we take into account whether they’re tired or hungry, whether what we’re asking them to wait for is worth it in their minds. The brain is always reshaping itself based on what it does. Any skill, including patience, has to be practiced and reinforced.
1. Start small and keep it simple.
Like anything new, or anything we’re practicing, it’s all about baby steps. Because being patient is hard! It’s hard even for us adults. That’s why we want to give our kids opportunities to practice now! So, it’s so much better to bite off small pieces, see our progress, be encouraged and keep going. Rather than to overshoot our expectations, fall short, be discouraged, and quit. The same is true for helping our kids practice patience.
So we can start giving our kids small little opportunities to practice patience from a pretty young age – even your young toddlers can start practicing. What might this look like for your toddlers? Well, maybe if their toy or blanket or something they want is out of reach, or it’s a snack they want now but you’re in the middle of folding the laundry, you can ask them to wait and help you fold a towel together before you get them what they want. Waiting 30 seconds – that’s patience! And as they get older, you can continue to stretch that time and you’ll see they can start waiting longer and longer.
When they get a little older, around school age, you can couple your request that they wait with providing a distraction. They still won’t be able to be patient for an hour, but you can ask them to play, or do a puzzle or color for 5 minutes while you take a call.
At this age too, because they’re starting school, they’re becoming familiar with why we ask them to do some of the things we ask – we’re not the only ones asking them to be quiet because others are working, or to wait their turn for the swings, or to not speak over each other.
And then my other note as it relates to starting small and simple when we’re having our children practice patience is to be realistic in our requests. And what I mean by this is how often do we tell our partner we’ll be ready to leave in 5 minutes, when really we mean 10 or 15? We do the same thing with our kids. They demand something and we say, I’ll get it to you in a second. Or, they’re trying to interrupt a conversation and we say we need a minute when really we need 10. Time is already vague to our kids. So imagine when we ask our 4 year old to wait a second and they know what a second is, and then they’ve been waiting for 2 minutes and are starting to get upset – no wonder! So when you’re asking them to stretch and grow in practicing their patience, honor how hard they’re working by being honest about how long you’re asking them to wait.
2. Teach self-regulation skills.
You guys know I love talking about teaching our kids self-regulation tools. You hear me talk about it so often on the blog because it’s a skill that really shows up in nearly everything else we’re trying to teach our kids! It’s that important. Like I mentioned earlier, waiting and being patient are not the same things. We’ve all seen our kids wait – maybe it’s a long line at the grocery store or a being stuck in traffic – and the whole time they’re waiting they’re losing it. They’re whining, complaining, getting angry, throwing a fit – that’s not patience! Patience is how we behave while we’re waiting. That’s the skill we want them to harness. But in order for them to have patience, initially they’re going to be fighting everything in their being that wants instant gratification. And when what they want isn’t instant, well, that’d make anyone angry, right? Especially a young, little, developing brain and nervous system.
So while we’re practicing patience, we also have to equip them with tools to use when patience is hard, aggravating, frustrating. I would encourage you to read the blog post about self-regulation if you haven’t already. There, I give you a ton of ideas and ways that you can go about helping your kids to regulate. Maybe it’s learning simple breath-work, maybe it’s jumping up and down and shaking their body out, maybe it’s coloring or stretching. Whatever seems to work well for their nervous system, we can give them tools they can go to when the waiting is hard to help make it easier.
3. See and acknowledge their patience.
Ah, the power of being seen and acknowledged. It’s so deep in each of us. And when our kids do something challenging, our acknowledgment can be the greatest reward or encouragement. So we can see and acknowledge when we notice them being patient.
And I think we can be even more intentional and see and acknowledge that being patient is hard! We can acknowledge that it’s not fun. We can empathize with them while we’re in the waiting room at the pediatrician that it’s hard and maybe boring to be patient sometimes. That’s ok! We don’t need to pretend that being patient is fun. Our kids respect our realness. So the next time your kiddo is getting agitated when waiting, try empathizing with them. Regulate yourself, look them in the eyes, maybe give them a hug, and see and acknowledge that what they’re being asked to do is tough. And that you’re proud of them for waiting despite it being so tough.
There’s so much opportunity to connect with your kids when you validate their feelings. And connection is one of the most powerful tools of parenthood. It’s going to make you feel better. It’s going to make your child feel better. And they are going to give patience a greater effort than if you were just scolding, shaming or ignoring how difficult waiting patiently can be. And then, it’s on you as a parent to get resourceful – how can you make the wait more bearable? Keep a deck of cards in your purse, play I Spy, play would you rather, play G-rated truth or dare – get creative! You’re the leader – leading in the waiting is such a great opportunity to connect with your kids.
Then, when we see our kids have waited for something patiently, it’s time to lay on the praise and encouragement. And the more specific the better, right? Often, just saying “good job” is too vague to have much effect, especially with our little ones. But specifically praising – wow, I saw how hard it was for you to wait for your sister to finish her homework before we could go to the park. I saw how badly you really wanted to go now! And then I saw how you decided to grab your coloring book and sit by her and patiently color while she finished – that was beautiful. I’m so proud of you for practicing your patience.
These are parenting habits, friends. Do we always get these right, no! If this is a far cry from how we’re currently parenting can we start to adjust, heck yes! And in that adjustment, do we need to show ourselves a ton of patience and grace and compassion? Double heck yes! But seeing and acknowledging rather than constantly doling out empty threats or consequences is such a greater investment – the payoff is so much greater.
4. Model patience for them.
If you’ve been with me for awhile, you could probably guess I was going to end here. Our kiddos are sponges. More is caught than taught. They’re watching and learning and soaking it all in. So sure, what we say matters. But, what they see us doing is really key. Your greatest teaching as a parent is going to be by your example.
For good or bad, our kids are our greatest mirrors. So if we’re impatient, if we’re quick tempered, if we throw a fit when things don’t go our way, or if we’re easily aggravated when we have to wait, they’re noticing. And when we expect differently of them, that’s really confusing. It’s a double standard. And it’s going to be a roadblock in cultivating the behaviors and skills you want to see in them.
So same thing here, you’ve gotta learn a few tools you can keep handy to help yourself regulate while you’re practicing your patience! And you can start small too! All these same steps you can apply to yourself. Start small, learn to regulate, and then see and acknowledge when you’ve made progress or shown up how you’ve wanted to. It’s ok to tell your kids you’re trying to be patient right now but it’s hard. You can tell them when you’re struggling with it. They can watch what you do when you really want to scream but dig deep for a little patience instead. And then when you do – dang, girl – give yourself a high five! Give yourself a pat on the back! Show yourself some love and appreciation, because it ain’t easy mama!