Teaching Your Child Patience - Without Losing Yours

By tj wierenga

Doctor and dentist office waiting rooms; long lines at the grocery store, with hungry, tired kids; lingering wet, muddy weather that keeps families indoors for days at a stretch. Seemingly endless car or airplane travel; a two year old learning to say “No!”; teething; lengthy bedtime routines; waiting on hold.  We have to wait in line, wait for weather to change, the vehicle to finally be “there yet”, for skills to develop, for Daddy to get home. So much of life is spent waiting! Likewise it is spent in difficult situations, too much stimulation, too many things happening at once (or not enough), and occasionally, in hardships.

Patience: the capacity, quality or fact of being patient. Synonyms: patience, long-suffering, resignation, forbearance. These nouns denote the capacity to endure hardship, difficulty, or inconvenience without complaint. Patience emphasizes calmness, self-control, and the willingness or ability to tolerate delay.

   As we all know, entirely too well, showing patience is also a challenge that can follow us into our adulthood and throughout all of our lives. Helping children learn patience is one of the most important things we can do as parents or caregivers. Much like developing the ability to kick a soccer ball or play the piano, patience is a strength that can be developed.

    How do you teach children patience? Modeling! You, as the adult in their lives, have to show it with your words and body language. It is a very concrete thing for a child to learn, nothing as abstract (but comparatively easy!) as the alphabet or mathematics. 

    An important thing to remember is that patience is a virtue and a capacity, not an emotion. You do not need to feel peaceful, calm or unflappable to display patience (thank heaven!).  For example, impatience is demonstrated immediately by: heavy sighs, sharp words, tight lips, scowling, lowered brows, clenched fists; while patience is demonstrated by: an open countenance, a real smile, a relaxed demeanor, and a helpful attitude. This response show a person who is in control of their own behavior.

    Practicing patience, over and over and over, is the only way that it can become part of a person’s character. It is not a skill that comes without practice.

    Put yourself in those little size 7 toddler shoes and realize that for them, the concept of “time” is almost completely beyond them. ‘Mom is busy right now’ is not something that they understand, because they cannot put themselves in someone else’s place yet. They only know that “they want what they want when they want it”. They feel an emotion or physical state, and without the framework of life’s experience behind them yet, they are not completely sure that the frantic hunger, dizzying tiredness, or even simple frustration with their inability to perform a task or obtain what they want will not, in fact, last forever.

    As parents or caregivers, our job is to help our children learn the skills that they will need to cope with life.  It is also to recognize when our small children are being over- or under-stimulated, or in a physical state (dirty diaper, hungry, tired) that they cannot fix without us. While we cannot protect them from life, we can do simple things to help them ease through difficult moments… provide distractions in the form of toys or coloring books when they must wait… as quickly as we are able, to change diapers, feed them (even crackers to hold them until the meal is ready), or give them the opportunity to sleep. When our toddlers and preschoolers start melting down, we need to keep in mind that WE are the adult, and we are the ones that the little eyes are looking to; our responses are being programmed into little minds. We are not “coddling” our small children by jollying them along and protecting them as best we can from the frustrations of the world… we are teaching them how to cope, without expecting perfection from someone who has been on this earth for only a thousand, or few thousand, days.

    As children mature, they learn that we will meet their physical needs, and they begin to learn how to handle their own impatience through such activities as group games (waiting their turn), helping to plant a garden and watch it grow, even going fishing! Our recognition of times that they show patience can really help this process along – try to always see and acknowledge verbally when your child makes that special effort. Be clear in your responses, indicating for example that “we will do that after you get home from school today”, or “when Dad finishes mowing the yard”… doing this will let your children know that there is a limited time that they have to wait, and it will also show respect for your child whereas a vague answer such as “later” does not. Of course, you have to do your part and follow through!

    For our older children, we must continue to model patience even if it seems as if our child is completely ignoring us sometimes. Help them set goals such as saving for a specific purchase, or taking a special trip once grades have reached a certain level. If you have younger children as well, ask your older children to help you teach the younger ones how to be patient – being asked to teach is a compliment! SFM

Coping Tricks

•     Remember that patience is an action, not an emotion. You do not have to feel patient in order to act patiently, with calmness and forbearance – even if it is only “an act”. Your children are watching and they are learning.

•      Acknowledge their emotions… sometimes just knowing that someone else understands goes far toward easing frustrations. “I know you are frustrated right now because we have to wait. That’s hard, isn’t it?” 

•      Teach them how to express frustration in a healthy way. For small children, break the tension by making an exaggerated show of demonstrating frustration by clenching your fists and stomping your feet until your little ones giggle, and then blow out a huge breath and shake your hands out and roll your neck showing them how we can relax.

•     The biggest weapon in the patience arsenal is a sense of humor. Look for something to laugh about in a situation, and share it with your kids.

•     Make finding the good in a situation into a family game, and award a small, inexpensive statue that passes from one family member to another (available at art supply and education stores) for “the Silver Lining” award – the person or child who came up with the best “silver lining to the storm cloud”.

•        Allow older children to get themselves under control if they have lost patience by taking a moment to go off to themselves.

•      Provide little snacks, books, coloring books or toys for small children from those cavernous Mom purses that some of us carry when we are away from home. Teach older children to carry a toy or book with them when they can expect to have to wait – a doctor’s visit, a long car ride, etc. If distractions are not available, sing a song together, or recite the alphabet, or talk about a favorite day that you have experienced together.

•     Keep your own expectations of children’s patient behavior reasonable, adjusting to their age and temperaments.

•       Most importantly, smile and hug, and show your children that no matter what the situation, you will keep right on loving them.

TJ Wierenga is a wife, mother of a 1 and a 2 year old, and lives in Billings.