23 November 2012
One of the most powerful skills we can help our children develop is patience - the ability to wait, delay gratification, to manage their impulses and desires, and to trust that they will be ok if they don’t get want they want immediately. I think most parents want their children to understand that a delay doesn’t mean no, and would prefer them to have the ability to cooperate with a request to wait rather than falling in a screaming heap on the floor! We also want our children to trust us to keep our word.
I have found the most useful way to develop these skills is through the work of Harvey Karp MD, author of “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and “The Happiest Toddler on the Block”. Both books are packed with useful techniques (and a couple of sanity-saving ones) that are very practical and adaptable, no matter what your parenting philosophy. Karp describes patience as being like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, and has developed a way to practise stretching it. I call it "Patience Practise"
Patience Practise consists of the following steps (suitable for all little people from 1 - 4yrs old)
Wait for an opportunity when your child is asking for something – you must have something they want, a toy, food, etc.
- Articulate or repeat what they want so your child knows you understand them eg “Bunny – you want bunny”. Indicate that “YES – sure you can have that” and START to give the object to them – have it in your hand, then STOP.
- Act distracted, as if you suddenly remembered something. Hold up a finger. “Hang on, wait! Wait one second!” and look away for a couple of seconds (pretend to look for something in a drawer, or bag, etc)
- After a few seconds, turn back to your child, give them the object with a big smile! Acknowledge them and celebrate by saying “Thanks for waiting!” or “You waited! Thanks!” or “Good waiting!” (depending on your style of praise). It’s important to use the words to reinforce the connection between what has just happened, and the word “Wait”.
- Repeat steps 1-3, gradually increasing the amount of time you look away (5 seconds, 10 seconds… 30… 60). After a while you can also start to move away out of sight of your child with the object, eg. around a corner.
Important: Keep the increases in waiting time gradual – remember, you are building your child’s trust that you will keep your word, and that you will return. If you stretch them too far you risk turning them off the game.
Practise this each day and see how long you can get to in a week. Many toddlers can quickly learn to wait for over a minute without any problem (really)! From here you can dramatically decrease the amount of frustration and tantrums your child may be experiencing. Eg If your child is having trouble waiting for their turn and you say, “No, it’s not your turn now”, the main thing they hear is “NO” which is likely to increase their frustration. If you are able to say instead “Yes, you can have a turn, you just need to wait for a bit”, (and they know they can trust what you say), they will much happier to hear “YES” and then be able to exercise their well-developed patience and waiting skills.
As the parent of an extremely high-needs baby who demanded to be held and carried had a very low tolerance for separation, I was shocked at how powerful this game was, and how quickly my son was able to build his ability to wait. We celebrated each little increase in waiting time, and I remember I had to use a timer to because I had trouble waiting for a whole minute before returning to celebrate – I was so excited! It was liberating for both of us when he was able to wait comfortably (so I could finally go to the bathroom BY MYSELF!), and that he trusted me to return. I could say “Yes, we can do that, you just need to do some waiting first”, or “Yes I’m coming – can you do some waiting?” and he could do it. I find it is always much more fun to be able to say “YES” in most circumstances rather than “NO”.
If you would like to help your child learn to develop their patience and waiting skills, try Patience Practise and let me know how you go!