Our children’s impatience and low tolerance for frustration can… well, test our patience! In this week’s episode, Janet responds to a question from a listener about how to teach a toddler to be more patient. Janet considers what patience really means to a child, how it develops, and how our expectations as parents and caregivers may get in the way. Her recommendations (as is often the case) may be surprising and counterintuitive.
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be answering the question: how to teach children patience. So, understanding how children actually learn. I find this a fascinating topic because questions about teaching children attributes and character traits, the answers aren’t always what they would seem to be.
Okay, here’s the email I received:
I’m curious about teaching patience. I care for a 16-month-old who is very advanced in many ways, but patience is not one of them. I’m not expecting hours of patience. I’m talking about three to five minutes of sitting in the high chair while I tidy up from lunch or a short 15 to 20 minute car ride. I personally have cared for several children, and I honestly don’t recall ever having such a hard time with this.
Do you have any posts or podcasts about when to or how to teach patience to a young toddler? Is this even something I should be concerned about? At 16 months in the little bit of research I did, I was only able to find a few blog posts by people I’m not familiar with. So I wanted to ask you, since I trust your expertise. Thanks in advance!
Okay, so how can we help this child or any child develop more patience? First to answer her question, is this something she should be concerned about at 16 months?
From what she’s given us here, I wouldn’t be terribly concerned. This sounds within typical range to me, and I’ll explain why in a little bit. First, I wanna talk about teaching and learning.
So teaching children, it’s seldom a direct process. Children are best served, they learn the deepest and the most self confidently if we see our role more as facilitating their development, rather than taking it upon ourselves to try to actively teach them things like patience or how to be less frustrated, or to be more resilient, to empathize, be kind to others, to have more emotional self control, and even with aspects of development like motor skills, cognitive concepts, creativity. Children learn best when we don’t try to teach or insist upon them doing these things, but rather encourage them to develop the skills naturally.
So while we don’t have a ton of power here to dictate the development of patience, we do have this one major teaching tool at our disposal: modeling. And the interesting thing, interesting to me anyway, because I’m kind of a geek about these topics, is that when we try to teach, we can actually end up undermining ourselves. Because while we’re teaching, we might be modeling the opposite of what we want children to learn.
Like in the case of patience, by asking children to be more patient or using strategies of any kind to try to get them to be more patient, children will tend to receive messages that we are not feeling as patient or as accepting of them, which in turn makes children feel less comfortable with us. And when they’re less comfortable, they’re more prone to dysregulation, frustration, impatience. They’re not as able to be at their best.
Which brings to mind one of my favorite quotes from Magda Gerber: “Be careful what you teach, it might interfere with what they are learning.”
So how do we model patients and facilitate its development? In natural, relational ways, not artificial ones. And that’s good news, right? We can take the pressure of trying to make this happen off of our plates.
When we’re being patient, we’re actually not doing something, right? It’s not a skill that we have to hone to make ourselves be patient so much as it’s a mindset. It’s a mindset of letting go and trusting.
Now, for some of us, that’s really challenging. I’ve said this before here, I’m less of a a “doer” personality. I’m far from perfectly patient, but it’s a little easier for me to be more passive and receptive. That’s more my temperament.
But for many parents I’ve worked with, not actively doing something, it’s like I’m asking them to tie their hands together. And I get how challenging that is. I understand how they maybe get frustrated with my podcast sometimes. She’s not saying what to do. All this perspective and stuff to think about and this letting go and trusting, just tell me what to do. So we want to know and make peace with ourselves as a starting point here.
Children have these different kinds of temperaments too, right? So the 16-month-old that this caregiver is talking about, he may have a temperament that’s more prone to frustration. He may be a doer personality. We can’t expect patience to ever be easier for our children than it is for us.
Okay, now I’m going to share some other thoughts I have for fostering our children’s development of patience:
- Accept and want to understand their point of view
In the case of this question from the caregiver, the 16-month-old is sitting in a high chair waiting while the caregiver tidies up from lunch and sitting in a car seat for 15 to 20 minutes. In both those cases, this toddler is strapped in. They’re restricted, which is understandably not welcome to young children who are all about motor skills and moving around. There’s really nothing there for them if the caregiver’s not paying attention while they’re sitting in the high chair. And there’s nothing for them really to do in the 15 to 20 minute car ride. So they’re physically restricted, having to wait. And young children have this wonderful quality. They live in the moment, They’re very mindful that way they don’t really understand, especially at 16 months, the concept of having to wait for something that they want. It’s not a concept that they can easily grasp.
All they know is, I’m here, I’m stuck and I don’t want to be here. And it maybe that this child has an active temperament, that would make sense. They’re kind of bursting at the seams to get out there and do and go and learn. And here they are stuck.
Patience and empathy are closely linked together. So when we’re able to relate to our child’s point of view a little bit more, we can be more patient with them.
The next bit of advice I want to give is,
2. Set ourselves and the child up for success in these situations
Which we can do if we understand their point of view, because our understanding of the child will dictate our expectations of them in any given moment, which helps us to be patient. So understanding that those aren’t ideal situations for a child to be in, and that we can’t really expect them to embrace either of those situations that this caregiver brought up with patience and acceptance and comfort.
Some children will, but it wouldn’t be something that I would expect, especially if a child has shown me otherwise.
So with the highchair, I would have a safe place for this child to play in as soon as they’re done eating so they don’t have to sit in that high chair one moment longer than they have a reason to be there. I know it’s common for parents or caregivers to strap the child in, then we go get the food, then we come back, then maybe we have to go back, get something else. Then we tidy up and we keep them there.
What I would recommend is either having a low table for a child to start sitting at where they’re not confined and can move away from the table when they’re done. And I have a lot of posts about that if you’re interested in that approach. But not everybody is. I’ll link to the posts that I have on that topic.
But if they’re in the high chair, or either way, have some kind of a tray or tub that you place everything in ahead of time for their meal or their snack, including the extras that you will offer if they want more if that’s appropriate. Even a wet wash cloth so that we can wipe hands after and clean up. We can do it all while we’re sitting there with the child paying attention. Because when we’re paying attention, our child is engaged in something that matters to them.
So if we could have this safe place for them to play in, what I call a “yes space” while we’re getting it together, and maybe our child will still object impatiently because they’re hungry, I would expect that. And I’d try to be setting myself up for success. I would try to arrange for meal times or snack times to be before this child would get too hungry. That’s not going to be a perfect thing that we can gauge, but at least trying for that and having these predictable routines so our child knows, Oh, this is the time that I play and then everything’s ready for me to come to the table. Then we have this time together while I’m eating, and then I get to go right back and play while they’re cleaning up. I would arrange your life that way, understanding the child’s point of view and what to expect.
And then offering respectful communication about what’s gonna happen next. “So we’re going to get in this car and you’ll be there for a while. Maybe you’re going to get frustrated and impatient about that. That’s okay. And we will get there soon. Then you’ll get to get out of this seat.”
So even explaining to a child that way with all the acknowledging: “Yeah, you don’t wanna be stuck back there.”. So if they are complaining in the back of the car, “Ah yeah, I hear you, it’s really hard to wait. It’s hard to sit there.? Welcoming the feelings helps children pass through them much more readily, accepting, letting go of trying to hold this situation together without complaints. A child has a right to complain about these things.
So our perceptions matter, and that’s where we want to do the third thing I recommend, which is:
3. Accept impatience
But we’re not going to rush to accommodate it in the moment. That’s assuming we’ve set ourselves up for success as best we can. It’s a totally imperfect process, but we’re doing our best. So the way to accept the feelings without accommodating them is, for example, in the car we’re not gonna pull over immediately as soon as our child makes a peep and get them out and walk them around, or wait until they’re ready to get into the car, let them, you know, hang out somewhere. We’re going to do what we need to do, but welcome them to share.
“Ah, you’re stuck back there and it’s really hard to wait. I hear you. Woo. You’re not having a fun car ride back there. I get that.”
Or with the food: “Wow, it sounds like you’re really, really hungry today!” But we’re not gonna panic and rush in and try to fix this, we’re normalizing it for ourselves.
So all the way through this, we are modeling patience, patience with our child’s impatience, not trying to accommodate it needlessly. Yes, in our setup for success, we’re going to be trying to accommodate, accommodate life so that it has the best chance of working for our child. But from there, we let go. And we just acknowledge that, yeah, young children are not models of patience a lot of the time.
Except when they are. And that’s the next point I want to make.
4. Value what children give their attention to and don’t interrupt
So I’ll bet that this child shows patience sometimes and focus with certain tasks, with certain types of play. This usually happens when we allow children to choose what they’re focusing on. It can also be with certain thoughts they might be having as they stare off into space.
Value what children are giving their attention to and don’t needlessly interrupt.
Sometimes as adults, we can have this perspective that whatever we have to say or what we want to show our child is more important, and that they’re just maybe empty vessels waiting for us to come fill them in and engage them and stimulate them. Well, that is really not the case. Children come with all of their own ideas and passions and interests. And I’ve never met a child that didn’t have times where they showed incredible patience. And sometimes with tasks that would make me frustrated and impatient, and they’re just still working at it. They’re still interested in in it.
Children have this amazing gift of beginner’s mind. They don’t naturally consider, I have to get to the end of this. I have to reach a goal of some kind. I have to finish it. I have to win, I have to master it. That’s not the way they come into the world. We can sort of teach that to them if that’s our perspective, which for most of us as adults, it is. So we might want to consider, Oh, I have this lens that they should be able to stack those blocks or finish the puzzle. Or if they’re an infant, grasp that toy. So I have to make that happen. I have to put that in their hand. I have to talk them through or help them get to the end of the puzzle or be able to stack the blocks or even I have to help them get through the feeling that they’re having. Whatever feeling it is, they need my help to calm them down and give them activities to get them through this.
When we do those things, we’re teaching our child impatience. Obviously without meaning to, with our best intentions.
But if we put on our childlike lens, seeing through their perspective… even if they come up against an obstacle and something they’re working on, that’s just another interesting thing that’s happening for them. I’ve seen this thousands of times with children that I’ve observed playing, which is a lot of the time that I’ve spent learning what I share about on this podcast. It’s from actually observing children doing all these things. They won’t naturally get as frustrated when they’re stuck, unless we’ve shown them that stuck is a negative thing through our modeling and through our responses.
So we want to:
5. Normalize leaving things hanging
Fundamentally then, and I can’t emphasize this enough, the only real way to teach patience is to:
6. Model it
Model it, model it, model it as much as we can remember to and, overall, being patient with each child’s development.
So those points for fostering patience, again:
- Accept and want to understand children’s point of view
- Set yourself up for success with predictable routines and respectful communication about transitions and reasonable expectations
- Accept impatience, but don’t rush to accommodate it in the moment
- Value what children give their attention to and try not to interrupt
- Normalize leaving things hanging
And then the big clincher is being patient with ourselves in these practices. Because, really, in the scheme of things, this is little stuff. Most children will develop patience eventually.
To encourage you to be patient with yourselves, let’s take a big step back. I want to share a caption that attachment theory expert Bethany Saltman shared on her Instagram, which I think will help you put all of this in perspective and be very patient with yourselves and not consider these things I’ve shared today as, oh, more stuff I have to do and figure out to be a good parent.
That’s not what it is at all.
So she says:
The term attachment is often used to describe a quality of obsession and insecurity that has nothing to do with the science of attachment and everything to do with patriarchal perfectionism. Securely attached babies and children and their caregivers are in a flow that works for them. Not checking boxes out of some fear of not being perfect, not following someone else’s rules because they don’t trust themselves, not beating themselves up when life is messy.
Because guess what? Life’s a mess. And so are we.
Remember when Mary Ainsworth studied securely attached pairs first in Uganda, then in Baltimore, she discovered that the one thing they all had in common was this feeling of mutual delight that was very much alive between them and that the parents of secure babies were connected to their babies, yes, but most importantly connected to themselves. They enjoyed their children. They enjoyed their lives.
So maybe instead of working so hard to create this so-called perfect life for our kids, we’d all be better off if we fought for a life we can enjoy.
A win win.
Bethany’s book, which I highly recommend is Strange Situation, A Mother’s Journey into the Science of Attachment.
So please, please be patient with and accepting of yourselves so that you can enjoy and be more patient with the development of your child’s patience and find more joy in the journey.
I hope that helps. We can do this.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. There are many of them and they’re all indexed by subject and categories. So you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnes and noble.com and in audio audible.com. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.
Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support.