Yep! That’s right! This article is about teaching patience to toddlers and, no — this is not a joke! Most parents and caregivers will chuckle at the idea of trying to explain patience or delayed gratification to a toddler, and rightfully so. They’re too young to truly grasp what it means to self-regulate, control excess energy, or simply wait for something. However, patience is one of the most useful skills children can learn. It helps them develop healthy relationships, be more considerate, and can even help them excel in academic settings. Practicing it now can provide a lot of rewards for them in the future.
It’s important to remember that each toddler has a different temperament, and they learn patience in various ways. Roni Leiderman, Ph.D., associate dean of the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, says that “it’s helpful for you to observe your child and understand that for some kids, waiting comes easily, while for others it’s really difficult.” So, while one strategy might work well for one toddler, it may not for another, and that’s okay. The goal is to find what works for your child and utilize those techniques to help them manage situations that require patience.
Tips for Teaching Patience to Toddlers
Here are a few strategies to try when you’re presented with situations that require your toddler to wait.
Have Realistic Expectations
Having realistic expectations is the number one rule when it comes to teaching patience. It’s important to remember that when a toddler is hungry, overtired, or just needs some extra love, it’s not the right time to focus on patience. Also keep in mind that this skill takes time to cultivate, so some days will be better than others.
Play Waiting Games
Games like our “Patience, Patience” and “Your Turn, My Turn” activities are great ways to get your little one used to waiting for increasingly longer periods.
Acknowledge the Challenge
It’s also important to recognize that waiting is very difficult for a toddler, so getting down on their level and acknowledging the challenge can be a helpful move. For instance, when you see your little one getting upset in the grocery line, you can say something like, “I know waiting isn’t very fun, but you’re a great partner to wait with!” Letting them know that you understand their struggle can go a long way.
Don’t Resort to Bribes
Positive reinforcement and praise are powerful tools for teaching patience, but bribes are not. Telling your toddler they can have a cookie if they sit still for two minutes may send a counterproductive message. Toddlers may start to always expect something in return for waiting patiently. What’s more, this reward-based approached may also cause self-regulation issues for them in the future. The idea is for them to understand that moving on after a long wait is the reward.
Burn Some Energy
Being patient is especially hard when you have built-up energy. This is true for toddlers and adults! Next time you’re waiting somewhere, don’t hesitate to move your bodies. Ask your toddler if they can stand on one foot, hop like a bunny rabbit, or wave their arms like a bird. Do the chicken dance. Play a game of Simon Says. Simple physical movements can help little ones distract themselves and burn off energy.
Ask Them What They Want to Do
Toddlers may hate waiting, but they love one-on-one attention. Utilize long lines and delays to your advantage. Ask your child what they’d like to do to pass the time. This gives them a sense of control and diverts their attention away from the delay. “It looks like we’ll be here a little bit longer, what would you like to do? We can read a book or sing a song. What do you think?” Bonus tip: In these situations, make sure you offer limited choices. Give two or three options, and allow your child to decide.
As always, we must model the behavior we wish to see in our children. Seeing parents and caregivers display patience makes toddlers more likely to be patient. In a world filled with unexpected delays and obstacles, it can be incredibly difficult to be cool, calm, and collected at all times. However, it’s critical for our children to see how to we practice patience ourselves.
We get it. Handing a toddler an electronic device is perhaps the easiest way to survive waiting. A video chat with Grandpa from the supermarket cart might be okay from time to time, or watching high-quality programming with an older toddler while sitting the car waiting for their sibling to finish school. But we urge you to think twice before resorting to screens every time your toddler is in a situation that requires patience. Remember that patience is a skill, and a critical one. If toddlers never get the opportunity to practice it, they can’t develop it. That means that when they enter screen-free situations, like school, they may display self-regulation challenges.
Patience is indeed a virtue! By introducing it now, you can set your child up to reap the many benefits of this skill throughout their lives.