This is what I do to teach my child patience

Patience is a difficult value to practice for adults, let alone children. Let's look at how we can inculcate this value in our children.

By Pulkit Sharma

This is what I do to teach my child patience

The doorbell rang and when I opened the door, a stout courier guy handed over the package we had been waiting for. A set of endearing arctic toy animals chosen by my five-year-old daughter as her birthday present had finally arrived. My wife and I were relieved that it was delivered well before her birthday. As we were trying to figure out how and where to hide the box, my little one seemed to have eavesdropped our conversation. “I want it right now”, she demanded with her impatient eyes giving us glimpses of her characteristic naughtiness.

We were used to giving in to several such demands because they seemed mostly benign and we also found it somewhat cruel to deprive her of the easy joys of childhood. But now it was different — since the last few months we had been working hard on ourselves and with her to empower her to be patient. We gave her a big smile, reminded her that her birthday is still three days away and suggested that we could use this time to make some exciting gifts for the little animals so that they also have a good time on her birthday. She gave us a somewhat dismal look at first but then joined us in making clothes and play dough figures for the animals.

There was a time when my daughter wanted almost anything and everything she fancied, and she wanted it superfast. It was extremely hard for her to take a no and waiting for things to happen at their natural pace made her really uncomfortable. Those were the days when the most common phrase we heard her saying was “No! I want it now.” And whatever she didn’t like, she wanted us to take it away from her life almost as quickly. Struggling to catch up with her rational and irrational demands like superhumans was becoming stressful for the whole family.

One fine day we spent a couple of hours in deep introspection trying to figure out where we were going wrong. Prompt came the answer — too much love! In our endeavour to shower her with unconditional love, we had simply forgotten that it was equally important to make her understand that life is also about restrictions and conditions. We decided to change ourselves and encourage her to develop patience. Slowly, steadily, and with a lot of determination, we seem to be getting there.

What is patience and why we can’t do without it
Patience is the ability to accept, endure and navigate frustration. It allows us to face postponement, struggle, and suffering without losing our mental calm and empowers us to come up with constructive coping mechanisms. This amazing capacity to wait infuses our life with positivity — giving us hope during difficult times, helping us find way through small and big stressors of life, equipping us to develop deeper relationships with others and inspiring us to achieve our goals by transcending various obstacles. No wonder, it has been considered a virtue since ancient times.

In our contemporary life, patience continues to hold an important place — whether it is an appointment with a paediatrician, a weekend visit to the nearby mall to that one hour of shopping, eating dinner at a popular restaurant, attending a social event, chasing a goal at the workplace, acquiring a possession or travelling in the peak hours of traffic, the world moves at its own pace. More often than not, we end up spending a considerable time of our life adjusting to this pace and waiting for things to happen. Most of us have learnt to make some peace with this reality and found our unique ways to navigate it smoothly. However, it is a whole new ball game for children.

Toddlers have a fledgling frontal cortex which lacks self-control mechanisms to delay gratification, they can’t wait, and they can’t take a no. Nonetheless, we need to find ways to introduce the idea of waiting in their lives so that slowly and steadily, their brains get ready to practice patience. Otherwise, they will suffer from a low emotional intelligence, find it hard deal with stress and will be forever prone to agitation at the drop of a hat.

In a longitudinal study conducted at the Duke University, Moffitt and her colleagues (2011) found that childhood measures of self-control and patience are very strong predictors of adult health, adjustment and well-being. They believe that one of the biggest social objectives in the 21st century is inculcating patience, restraint and reason in our children. In a similar vein, the classic marshmallow experiment conduct by Walter Mischel (1970) and colleagues at Stanford University had researchers giving one marshmallow to each child and leaving him with a choice that he could either have it immediately or wait for 15 minutes till the researcher came back. The child was told that if he did not eat the marshmallow while the researcher was away, he would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. While some children ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher was out of sight, others tried to distract themselves and managed to wait for the reward. The research followed these children over a period of several years and concluded that those who waited patiently for the rewards had better life outcomes as compared to those who gave in to their impulses instantly.

Of course, teaching kids how to be patient isn’t easy because as soon as one starts this process, one is greeted by an array of temper tantrums. But, its crucial to not give up and keep trying. Below are a few techniques that I have been using to help my daughter develop patience.

Developing empathy
Young children lack the neuronal hardware, psychological wisdom, and affirmative experiences to convince them of the value of patience and put it to practice. Reaching the stage where they can delay gratification like adults is genuinely difficult for them. When faced with impulsivity of my daughter, I reflect on how I thought, felt, and behaved when I was a young child and whenever in doubt, I ask my mom to fill in the blanks. Doing this makes me realize that I was quite impatient as a child and even now as an adult with a good self-control, I do have occasional indulges which I find hard to resist. All this self-reflection enables me to look at my daughter’s world through her eyes, feeling empathy for her struggles and taking it easy. As a result, we bond exceptionally well — often working together as team facing challenges and building forbearance. Developing and expressing empathy for your child will reassure him that he is not alone in his struggles and that you are always there to understand and help him.

What you can do right away to develop empathy for your child:

  • Remembering your own childhood and adulthood struggles around delaying gratification and witnessing them mindfully
  • Encouraging your child to talk openly about his difficulties around waiting, listening to him empathically and trying your best to see his world through his eyes
  • Working together as a team to help your child develop patience

Introducing an element of fun
Children are open to new ideas and suggestions if they find them exciting. Giving them a long lecture on value of patience and expecting them to be motivated to follow your advice like a perfect student is asking too much from them. I discovered that my daughter would be interested in developing resilience if she found the waiting experience somewhat novel, rewarding, and entertaining. Therefore, whenever I ask her to wait for something, I try to keep her happily occupied through new ideas, creative activities, songs and games. That ways she does not feel alone in the waiting experience and has started looking forward to it.

What you can do right away to introduce an element of fun during waiting:

  • Playing ‘antakshari’ — the Indian song game of the ending letter
  • Making figures out of play dough
  • Taking turns to tell each other self-made silly stories
  • Giving them sheets and colours to explore their artistic side
  • Making soap bubbles trying to catch them
  • Trying to hunt shapes and colours together in your surroundings

Being a role model
It is a common trend among parents to give long lectures to children highlighting their impatience and nagging them to be tolerant. But the little ones don’t care much about such lectures — in fact they end up feeling all the more annoyed, resentful, and defiant — making the least attempt to bring a change in themselves. Actions are always more powerful than words and therefore one of the best ways of getting through them is practicing what we intend to preach. Motivating my daughter to wait peacefully became easier as I started working hard on myself to be serene at home and made efforts to deal with her calmly on all matters. When I don’t lose my cool during stressful times, she seems to value it, look up to it, and tries to imbibe it in her own way.

What you can do right away to inspire your child to develop self-control:

  • Starting your day with visualizing yourself as extremely serene and aspiring to practice patience
  • Revisiting this aspiration several times during the day
  • Whenever things seem to be going out of control, taking a short break and making your breath calmer
  • Indulging in your favourite pastime every day to feel good about life

Going slow
When we look around carefully, it becomes clear that we are living in a very fast paced world where everything is expected to happen instantly. No wonder, we unconsciously want well-behaved children at one go. But this is an unrealistic expectation because a deeper look at nature tells us that speed is artificial, flow is natural — wind, water, plants, birds, and animals — everything which is not manmade follows its own trajectory at its own pace. There are no fast forward buttons and changes happen in a leisurely organic manner.

I was shocked to learn that I had been putting a lot of unconscious pressure on my daughter to grow up quickly. And when I decided to opt out of this self-imposed marathon, I started giving her ample time and space to mature and she values it a lot. She doesn’t have to be an adult in the next one week, month or even year — there is a long way to go and I tell myself to enjoy the baby steps she is taking. Slowing down has prevented me from putting too much pressure on my daughter and helped me set realistic expectations with her. This gives her opportunities to develop patience at her pace.

What you can do right away to walk at your child’s pace:

  • Spending time in nature — walking by the beach, watching the rising sun or observing birds carry on with their daily business
  • Always starting with smaller targets aiming at developing patience and slowly increasing their complexity
  • Appreciating and celebrating the minute positive changes that your child brings in her behaviour

Reclaiming the piggybank
In recent times, there is an increasing cultural impatience across various age groups over buying consumer goods. The current generation loves to buy things for fulfilling their fantasies, enhancing their self-esteem, and having fun and pleasure in their life — they buy almost on an impulse without adequate planning or allocating a budget. Children who are born and are growing up in this culture have internalized this impulsivity and want everything they want instantly. As soon as I understood this, I tried to bring back the concept of the good old piggybank in our home.

The piggybank not only teaches us the value of saving money, but it also encourages us to patiently earn our rewards and wait for things to happen. If my daughter wants to buy a new toy without any special occasion, I give her small amounts of money every day that she can save in her piggybank. We wait till enough has been accumulated and then we buy the toy from that money. This way my daughter gets to learn that toys are expensive, money is valuable, she must save money to buy what she wants and while doing this she also learns to wait patiently and happily to reach her goal. The piggybank has enabled my daughter to contain her impulses for instant gratification and her impatience has gone down across different situations.

What you can do right away to help your child reclaim the piggybank:

  • Whenever your child wants a new toy, tell her that you all must save money for it in her piggybank
  • Offer her a small allowance daily to be put in the piggybank and count the amount every Sunday to figure out how far you are from the magical figure
  • When enough funds are accumulated, open the piggy bank and buy the toy

In a nutshell

  • Encouraging your child to be patient is one of the greatest gifts you can give her. The best things in life rarely come to us instantly and the capacity to wait keeps us goal-oriented 
  • As you get down to teach your child some patience, you need to acknowledge that learning to be serene is a long-drawn process with several back and forth movements
  • It helps to be very patient with the child giving her ample time and space to acquire this capacity at her own pace
  • Breaking a complex goal into smaller components, introducing some element of fun and moderating your expectations can make this journey interesting and enjoyable for you as well as the child

What you can do right away

  • Being a good role model by keeping your calm under all circumstances
  • Working as a team with your child and coming up with creative and fun ideas to make waiting interesting
  • Always starting with smaller targets aiming at developing patience, slowly increasing their complexity and consistently appreciating the minute positive changes that your child brings in her behaviour

About the author:
Written by Pulkit Sharma on 7th December 2019.
Sharma is a clinical psychologist and spiritual counsellor in Puducherry, India. He amalgamates contemporary psychology with ancient spiritual perspectives in his psychotherapeutic practice. He is the author the book ‘When The Soul Heals: Explorations In Spiritual Psychology.’ 

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 9 December 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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