They say patience is a virtue, but these days, who has the time? I get antsy if someone doesn’t email me back in an hour. A movie comes out, and we watch how it does in its first two weekends, sometimes even just on opening day. If sales aren’t good, we write it off. Whether in art or politics, we expect people to hit it big on the first try out; second acts are hard to come by.
For a little kid, even the shortest delay in gratification can feel like the biggest deal. In part, this is developmental. My four year old, Felix, is still trying to figure out time. “When’s Mommy coming home,” he asks almost every day around 4:30.
It’s like he somehow groks that the time for her arrival is imminent, even though he can’t read the clock yet. “I think she’ll be home in about fifteen minutes,” I say. Or maybe it’s twenty, or thirty — the specific number of minutes doesn’t really matter, because he doesn’t understand how long it takes for a minute to pass.
“Is that a long time?” is his constant response.
I usually say no, but that’s kind of a lie. Because whether it’s five minutes or five hours, for Felix, the wait feels like a long time. And you know how the song goes, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
Recently, though, I’ve noticed a change. Felix still gets annoyed sometimes about having to wait for something, but he does wait. On National Train Day, he was among hundreds of kids who visited Grand Central Terminal to see the engines and participate in the fun and games. He bided the time for about forty-five minutes to receive a free Chuggington train toy, and he did so very patiently, with a bit of whining, but nothing serious or tantrumy. This past weekend, the crowd at Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island oozed out the door, thick with people waiting for hot dogs and french fries. Felix was happy to join them. My wife raised him over her head so he could see the overwhelming hungry masses. “You want french fries that bad?” she asked. He put down his feet and said, “Yup.” In this case, his patience outlasted hers. She lured him onto the subway with the promise of snacks at home, the line was just too long!
Have you heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? In it, a researcher places a marshmallow on a table in front of a four-year-old. The kid is told that he can eat the marshmallow, but if they wait while the researcher runs out for an errand, they’ll be rewarded with two marshmallows. When left alone, some kids (dubbed “impulsive”) go for the prize right in front of them, eating the marshmallow up the moment they’re untended. Others (“impulse controlled”) will wait upwards of twenty minutes for the adult to return and give them a second marshmallow.
A follow-up study found that at eighteen years old, there were differences in the kids’ performance on SAT tests. The impulsive kids scored 210 points lower than the impulse controlled kids. (Why exactly that is, I don’t know if anyone knows for certain.)
So is there a way for parents to help their children build patience muscle? Possibly not. Some kids might naturally have it, while others do not. A lot of our child’s personality comes pre-programmed.
Still, we can help them practice being patient, and encourage them when they wait patiently.
One means of doing this, I think, is practicing screen control. If your child can’t wait in line without being online, playing a game on your smartphone, say, then they may find it hard later in life when they must queue up to use the bathroom or go on a field trip or get a driving learner’s permit. Instead of giving them something digital to do, interact with them in an imaginative way. Play games, like “I spy.” Sing songs. Talk. Just look around and notice stuff. In other words, do what we all do while waiting on line, which is kind of spacing out, thinking about the world, while time passes.
Another is by talking about the future in ways that emphasis cause and effect. If you wait then this is going to happen. Or, make the waiting less about time and more about activity. If you read this storybook with me, then we’ll go off on our play date.
Finally, since children can’t understand time, make it concrete by using a timer. If I know my wife is coming home around 5 o’clock, I’ll set a timer so that Felix can see the minutes passing. It’s way less annoying then having him ask me every two minutes if she’s going to be home yet, and it also gives him something to focus on while he waits.
And of course, kids learn by watching us, so remember to be patient yourself when waiting in traffic or crowds! And when dealing with your impatient little one too. Take a deep breath, eh?