How to teach little kids patience in three easy steps

My hands were covered in raw chicken.

I was snipping away with my kitchen scissors, cutting the bones out of some chicken thighs to make Cracklin’ Chicken.

Snip, snip. So far, so gunky.

“Mom, can I have some juice?”

It was my four year old.

“Pardon me?” I replied.

Please can I have some juice,” he tried again.

“Okay. Just as soon as I’ve finished with the chicken.”

But seemingly that wasn’t good enough.

His huge eyes were fixed on me as he craned his neck on tiptoes.

My hands covered in potential food poisoning were no reason to wait.

“Please, PLEASE, can I have it now?”

It was going to be a long couple of minutes until the chicken was all cut.

Little kids need to learn patience

I looked down at that little anger monster and realise that I created him.

As in he’s like this because of me.

He asks for stuff and I give it to him – which is understandable.

Our kids cry and we respond. When they’re babies, we wonder what they want and we try to give it to them.

But for a child to be able to be patient when they don’t get what they want right away, we have to take a slightly different approach.

But how do you take that kid – who won’t even let you wash meat juice off your hands – and teach them patience?

Insisting that they wait can result in loud, angry protests – but what else is there?

How to teach kids patience

I wondered all this as I  coached my son through the next two minutes until I was done with the chicken so I could get him a drink.

And then  I remembered something that my own mother told me.

It was from a conversation a few years ago when my eldest child was little.

And time he wants something, think of a thing you have to do before he can have it. It doesn’t to be a big thing or take a long time – it just makes him learn to wait. Make something up if you have to.

Do you know what? At the time, I ignored her. In fact, I thought the whole idea was mean. 

Why shouldn’t he get what he wants? Why bother with unnecessary waiting around?

But now I knew.

Little kids need to learn to wait for what they want.

And it’s not horrible if you look for tiny opportunities in the day and use them to stretch your child’s patience a little at a time.

teach child to be patient

Teaching patience activities

It’s sometimes called patience stretching – and you can start teaching it to your toddler or preschooler right now.

We began to work at stretching my son’s patience right away.

Day in and day out in small ways – just like my mom suggested.

Not big waits – little waits.

Even waiting for me to cut the bones out of a couple of chicken legs was going to be a lot to start with.

Step 1 – start with very small waiting times

Like a few seconds. 

Start very small. I started with waiting for me to pour his sister’s breakfast cereal before I would put milk on his bowl.

Or tying my own shoelaces before I would help with his.

Five seconds small.

And because these little opportunities come along multiple times per day, you never need to actually plan on doing patience stretching activities with your child at all.

You only have to notice the opportunities and grab them.

Wanting a snack, or a change of TV channel, or the bathroom, or for you to be done talking on the phone or for some help with an activity – any of these is a perfect opportunity for your little one to practise waiting.

Waiting for a few seconds is enough to begin with – and then longer and longer once they get used to it.

What if my kid hates patience stretching activities?

What if you give it a go and your kid hates it?

‘Lies on the floor and yells’ hates it?

That probably means they really need to learn to be patient. 

Waiting for stuff is part of life. It’s a social skill they’ll need to learn in order to get along with others.

It’ll make so many situations easier for them and you.

And you can help by taking the whole process slowly and rewarding every baby step.

You’ll be glad when you’re elbow deep in meat juices and they want something.

So make the waiting time tiny and reward every baby step forward with praise. 

Step 2 – genuine praise for baby steps

You can encourage your little one’s patience building by praising them often when you’ve made them wait.

And the praise needs to be genuine, so if they yelled at you the whole time it’s pretty hard to praise that.

So look closer. Was there anything they did well?

Do they usually jump up and down and bang their fists when they’re impatient – but this time they didn’t, or they did it less?

Then you could say,

“That was quieter feet this time, good job,” and ignore the yelling – or remind them gently what you want to see.

“Remember, we really want to see quiet feet and talking nicely while you wait.”

And keep encouraging the good stuff you see – even if it hardly feels worth praising.

patience stretching activities

What if patience stretching isn’t going well?

If there’s really nothing to praise – like they yelled and banged on the walls for the whole time – then you can say,

“Let’s try to be quieter next time.” 

That way, you acknowledge that they didn’t do great without making a big deal out of it. 

They’re little. They’re learning – and it’s okay to have a crappy day now and then.

And keep going each day, a little at a time – until you can extend the time they’re waiting.

Step 3 – extend the waiting time

Once they can wait a few seconds, get them to wait a little longer. 

Thirty seconds instead of ten.

A minute.

2 minutes.

The longer they can wait without complaining, the better for both of you.

There’s no need to clock watch – just make the tasks you do while they wait a little longer.

Make your coffee before their juice.

Change the baby before you go and change the TV channel or help with the puzzle.

Tell one more story before you end the phone call.

Make teaching patience a game

And if you want to go further, inject some fun into your patience building by playing games.

Set down a small treat in front of your child and challenge them not to eat it until you count to 5, 10 or however many you think they can cope with.

Or get the family involved and have a treat for everyone. You can eat your treat whenever you like – but the last person wins a bonus treat.

Not gonna lie – this one could backfire. You could find yourself with some serious toddler rage on your hands if someone else wins that treat. But you have to give things a try.

And games are one of the easiest ways to make compliance fun – and build it into your day.

Because daytime is the best time to practise your patience stretching activities –  during the day you and your child are more likely to be relaxed and happy.

More patient kids are more independent at bedtime

But patience is a bedtime superpower.

Would you like your preschooler to be able to fall asleep at bedtime without you there? 

Patience stretching is excellent preparation for that.

Yes, YOU need to be patient – but if you have a child who has a little patience and resilience when waiting for what they want, there’s a greater chance they’ll be able to handle falling asleep without you.

That makes sense because a kid who can’t wait for what they want will just be yelling for you the second you’ve walked out the door.

If you’d like to build towards having your child fall asleep alone, read this next >>

Realistic expectations for your child’s patience

So we did eventually get the chicken dinner prepared. 

It was a long couple of minutes but we made it.

So where do you start?

You know your kids.

You know how they behave now. Do they have a lot of self control when they want something?

Do you need to start with a two second wait or a ten second wait?

It doesn’t matter which as long as you start – and stick with it.

Because if you start making your child wait – and have fun doing it – it’ll get easier over time. 

Read this next – Tips for getting your child to do what you want >>

teach child self control

Want to read more about building patience, read this article.

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