Cultures across the globe recognize patience as a virtue in both children and adults. Yet, fostering this quality in children is becoming increasingly difficult in our instant-gratification-focused world. In an era of instantly streaming videos, text messaging, and fast food, helping children see the value of patience can be challenging. We know, however, that in the long term, patience pays off. We’ve all seen the value of patience in our personal lives, careers, and relationships. Let’s consider modern ways to foster this ancient (but still relevant) quality in our children.

Why Patience Matters

Besides just being considered a “nice” quality, patience has been linked to tangible positive outcomes among children and adults. For instance, among anxious or depressed adolescents who participated in a training program to increase patience, research showed they exhibited higher levels of happiness following the program. Not surprisingly, studies find that patience and self-control are closely linked, even among adolescents. Thus, if patience is seen as a building block of self-control, it may indirectly influence adolescents’ outcomes. Previous research shows that self-control predisposes adolescents to better life trajectories as adults. For example, adolescents with better self-control were found to have stronger career outcomes as adults.  

Since patience is a skill that takes years to develop, it is also useful to look at its benefits in adults. Among adults, patience is linked to better physical and mental health as well as strong relationship skills. Thus, it seems clear that patience is a quality worth fostering in our children for both their immediate well-being and their long-term development.

The Development of Patience

Helping children develop patience in our current societal context can feel like an uphill battle. Ironically, fostering the skill of patience in children requires our own patience as well. As with many social-emotional skills, patience develops slowly in children over the course of years. Therefore, one of our first steps centers on having age-appropriate expectations of our children’s patience. For example, it is not reasonable to expect a toddler to have a great deal of patience, but over the years, our expectations must grow with our children. By the time children are four or five years old, they can be expected to have more patience, especially if a distraction is provided. As children mature, their patience typically grows as well. However, we can help aid this process by providing opportunities for them to practice their patience. 

Tips for Cultivating Patience in Children:

  • Make time tangible.  One common reason young children struggle with patience is that they have a limited understanding of time. When we say something like, “Wait a minute” they don’t fully grasp the timing, plus they likely fail to understand that sometimes phrases like this are not literal. 

To overcome this challenge, we can help make the passage of time more tangible for children. This could be done straightforwardly by using timers to illustrate how long a task will take. You could set a timer for the time it takes you to do a task like writing an email or dishes. 

Another approach is to utilize timed events with which children are familiar. For example, if your child asks how long a certain task or event will take, you could suggest, “It will take as long as two of your favorite TV shows” or “it will take about as long as it takes for us to walk to school.” Examples like this offer children a more concrete way of viewing time which can help them be more patient when waiting.

  • Use play. It may sound odd to incorporate play as a strategy for patience, but children really do learn best through play. Given children’s playful mindset, we can use this to our advantage in helping them learn to wait patiently. If you are waiting in line, for example, harness the power of your child’s imagination to help the time go faster. Encourage them to pretend that they are doing something exciting as one of their favorite characters. For example, maybe they are “waiting at the start line of a big car race” or “waiting in hiding like a secret agent.” Capitalizing on children’s vivid imaginations can support their patience and make it more fun.
  • Use praise effectively. One powerful way to encourage children’s patience is to point out when they do it well. As with many aspects of parenting, focusing on children’s positive behaviors can be a wonderful way to support the development of their skills. While inflated praise or praise that is too vague is not helpful for children, offering specific praise when they are patient can reinforce its value. Saying something like, “I love how you were so patient with your sister when she was struggling with her shoes” can be an effective way to help children feel proud of the skill they are learning.

Patience is often considered a virtue, in part, because it is challenging. It requires effort, practice and a bit of maturity. In helping children build their patience, it is also helpful to remember to be patient with yourself. In parenting, it is easy to forget that we are learning new skills along with our children and we sometimes need patience with our own development. By focusing intentional effort on helping our children develop patience, we are fostering a path to a fuller, more enriching life. 

Preview blurb: Have you heard something like this from your children, “Are we there yet?” or “How much longer?” Children do not like waiting and they often struggle with patience. It’s true that being impatient is just part of being a child. But patience is also a skill that we can help foster in our children. Read on to discover some modern ways to cultivate this ancient virtue of patience.

The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.

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