“It’s a now generation — everything is instant and accessible and kids are used to having everything quickly,” says Michele Borba, an educational psychologist based in Palm Springs, Calif., and author of “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.” Yet this new reality comes at the expense of kids developing the ability to tolerate waiting or delays without getting upset.
Kids aren’t born with patience. It’s a quality they develop over time. “Young kids are supposed to be egocentric because their whole world is revolving around them,” Borba explains. This is partly because parents and caregivers are constantly attentive to a child’s needs and safety, and partly because of how their brains work. The goal is to gradually help kids build self-control as their brains mature and develop.
“We live in a social world and we can’t have everything we want when we want it — that’s where patience and self-control come in,” says Pamela Cole, a professor of psychology and human development at Penn State University. “The years between toddlerhood and kindergarten are critical for developing patience.”
By age 6 or 7, kids can start to think about their own behavior and the consequences of that behavior and better understand the concept of patience, says Pamela Davis-Kean, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “Patience is another name for self-regulation, which is both behavioral and emotional.”
While schools are a major setting where kids learn patience — often because they have to wait in lines and take turns — parents can also help kids build it. And it’s worth the effort, because “a patient child is a happier child,” Borba says. “He’ll be less stressed, have better self-control, and make fewer rash decisions.” Another perk: Research suggests that when people increase their capacity for patience, they have less depression and more positive moods.
Here are some ways you can help your kids cultivate patience:
Play games that involve patience. Outdoor games such as Red Light, Green Light or Mother, May I? help kids learn when to act and when to wait. Inside, playing card games such as Go Fish or board games such as Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders are great ways to help kids learn to wait their turn and handle frustrations, Borba says.
Redirect your child’s attention. To help a child be patient while waiting in line, for example, create distractions by playing a hand game (such as Rock Paper Scissors) or an I Spy game or singing a song together.
Sohaib Hasan’s almost-3-year-old child often becomes frustrated while waiting for her turn at the playground. “We’ll engage in a fun activity like counting birds or finding shapes in the clouds,” says Hasan, a father of three girls in Karachi, Pakistan, and founder of OhMyClassroom.com. “This makes the waiting time more enjoyable and helps her cope with her impatience.”
Research has found that using the attention training technique — which involves focusing your attention on different sounds in space to divert attention from your feelings — improves kids’ ability to delay gratification.
Model patience when you’re frustrated. Sometimes adults struggle with patience, too. “The difference is, as adults, we have a tool kit to go to, to help us be patient,” says Kimberly Cuevas, an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut. As a parent, you can model how you use these tools — by taking a deep breath before acting when you’re frustrated or using time spent in traffic to listen to calming music or think aloud about your next vacation. Seeing this behavior may inspire your child to follow your lead in similar situations, experts say.
Build in pauses. When you ask your child a question that requires more than a yes-or-no response, encourage them to wait at least three seconds before answering, Borba suggests. Besides allowing your child a chance to think of an appropriate response, this pause helps curb the impulse to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. Along with patience, these are key aspects of self-regulation, Borba says.
Rely on visual aids. Offer concrete ways to count down the waiting time — such as using an oven timer or an hourglass-shaped sand timer — while they’re waiting for a snack or your attention, for example. This is especially helpful for younger kids, for whom a particular span of time may feel abstract.
When Yaeli Vogel’s 4-year-old son began asking for a new magnet toy, she suggested it would be a great gift for his 5th birthday. He liked the idea until he realized his birthday was several months away. Because he kept asking for the toy, Vogel decided to create a chart for him that depicts every day up until his birthday. “The chart has other exciting dates on it so he’s motivated [to] go through it and not just anticipate the end,” says Vogel, a mother of five boys and an artist and gallerist in Long Island.
Besides helping him realize the big day is coming closer, checking off a date on the chart each night has allowed him to practice patience, she says.
Validate your child’s feelings. “There may be times when you need to be compassionate and say, ‘this is really hard for you, honey, and I’m sorry,’” Cole says. This is a form of “emotion coaching,” which can be effective in helping kids develop patience among other self-regulatory skills. Research has found that including emotion coaching in parenting programs helps reduce children’s disruptive behaviors and improve the relationship between kids and their parents.
Discuss the outcomes of decisions. Depending on your child’s age and ability to verbalize their feelings, it may be valuable to talk about whether they’re happy with a particular choice they made or wish they’d made a different one.
A 2019 study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that experiencing regret about a choice helps 6- and 7-year-old kids learn to delay gratification when they face a similar one in the future.
To get the conversation started, you could comment upon how your child seems to feel after deciding to spend their birthday money right away, then ask how they do feel about their decision or what they learned. By encouraging this kind of self-reflection, Borba says, you’ll be helping them develop the ability to delay gratification in the future.
Use positive reinforcement. “Recognize when your kids have been patient and tell them you appreciate it,” Cuevas says. “This will help motivate your children to do that again.” You can also do this by “telling the other parent or a friend how well your child did with patience while your child is within earshot,” Borba says. Hopefully, your child takes pride in that behavior, which will encourage a repeat performance in the future.
“Patience is teachable as long as the person teaching it is patient themselves,” Borba says. “You’ll never get instant results. It takes patience and it takes time.”
Stacey Colino is a writer specializing in health and psychology. On X, she’s @ColinoStacey.