7 Practical Tips for Teaching Toddlers Patience

Updated January 7, 2022
Rear view of small boy looking in the oven

As a parent, you have a list a mile long on life lessons that you should be teaching your child so they grow up to be confident, capable, and productive members of society. Somewhere on that massive list is teaching patience. Patience is a virtue that kids will benefit from throughout their life, and practical tips can help guide your child to a more patient existence.

The Importance of Patience

"Be patient!" every parent has hurled these words at their squirrelly kids one or two (or 100 times), but what is patience, and why is it such an important part of life?

Little boy sitting in car on child's seat with fastened seat belt

Patience has three components: empathy, mindfulness, and self-leadership. It requires us to understand that our needs are just as important - but not more important - than the guy ahead of us in line. That's empathy. If we can stay in the moment while in that line - mindfulness - we will become less frustrated. We won't be thinking of all the things we have to do once we get out of that line. We'll be more thankful for the break in the action. Finally, patience requires self-leadership. We get up each morning with a sense of service to others. We take responsibility for our needs - enough rest, exercise, good food, a place to live - so we can fulfill our ultimate purpose of serving other people.

That is a tall order for a three year-old! In fact, demanding patience sounds like a tall order for anyone. How do we help children understand this high-level concept and, more importantly, learn to put it into everyday practice?

Useful Tips for Teaching Kids Patience

Telling kids to be patient and even explaining the concept simply isn't enough for them to process and put it into action. Patience and willpower are not innate qualities of the human being, as highlighted in the infamous marshmallow test by expert psychologist Walter Mischel. As the parent and teacher, you must create a pathway to the end result: a patient child, and you do this through tips and steps that allow children to put the act of patience into practice.

Start With Baby Steps

Don't hesitate to teach your children the building blocks of patience. Very young toddlers can begin to understand and practice the concept of waiting and delayed gratification. You might start by asking a child to wait for one minute for a bath toy they requested. Your little one may have asked you to play dolls, and you require them to stand by as you finish unloading the dishwasher. At this point, your kid is miles away from standing in line for 45 minutes at Disney World to meet their favorite character. Still, they are beginning to understand and practice patience as you work a minute or two into the day when they don't immediately get what they demand.

Allow Kids to Experience Wait Time

Listening to your child complain and whine as you wait in a grocery line is a cringe-worthy experience, to be sure. We, as parents, want the unpleasant moment to just stop, so we do what we can to stop it. We hand over our phones, allow devices and technology to fill spaces of wait time, and go to extreme lengths to appease kids who might become impatient as we carry on with the tasks in a day.

When parents do this, they withdrawal the natural experience of waiting. Kids can now no longer feel what it is like to wait for something, nor can they practice their patience skills. Without practice, the skill never becomes tried and true. It is best to allow kids to experience wait time in the real world, even when they are whiney or fidgety. Be sure to positively encourage correct and patient behavior as you see it happening. Say things like:

Waiting in line
  • "You are doing an awesome job being in control of your body as we wait in line."
  • "I'm so proud of you for being so patient and respectful to everyone around us as we wait."
  • "Waiting is not easy, but you are doing it like a rock star!"
  • "It is so awesome that you can stand here with me and not fuss over waiting for our turn. I appreciate your hard work, buddy."

Make Good on Your Promises

"How long until we get there?"

Kids ask a lot of questions, and questions regarding time and travel are common with little ones. Try to give kids accurate information on when you might be arriving somewhere, so they can learn to better process time and work on their patience skills.

  • Instead of saying, "We will get there when we get there," tell kids the travel time as they understand it. Try saying, "We will be there in about as long as one episode of Fireman Sam takes.
  • Instead of saying, "Stop asking how much longer. It will take as long as it takes!" Try saying, "I would say we will be arriving in about five songs' time."

Furthermore, if you tell kids that you will go bike riding in five minutes after putting away laundry, do it. Don't hope they will forget about the request so you can squeeze in a few more chores (or a quick episode of your favorite Bravo show). By the time they remember about the bike ride, it will have likely been much longer than five minutes, and this throws their sense of time off. They begin to think of five minutes as an exponentially long time. You don't want this. You want them to learn time and patience in tandem, so they can be realistic in their waiting and delayed gratification behaviors.

Create Delays on Purpose

You can set up roadblocks to instant gratification for your children, and this doesn't make you a bad or mean parent. It makes you a conscious parent who knows that without roadblocks present, kids will never learn strategies to overcome them. Set aside time in the day to purposely delay things, forcing children to wait it out occasionally.

As children grow older, you can work the idea of delay into rewards and major earnings. Maybe they want a new bike now, but they will have to wait for their birthday. They would do anything for a puppy, and you are not opposed to adding a furry friend to the mix. Requiring your child to be ten years-old or save up enough money to help offset the cost of a pet is a way to delay the gratification and tie waiting into a major event.

Teach Taking Turns

Teaching very young children to take turns is an excellent way to practice patience. By nature, little kids will want to have their turn all the time, but that isn't life out in the real world, and waiting your turn for something you really want is important and takes patience. Parents sometimes see their child unable to wait in line for ice cream or for their turn with a playground toy, so they remove the experience. They take the child home and avoid going back to the place of failed patience. This is the opposite of what parents should do. Keep working at waiting, regardless of how uncomfortable it might be, and before long, your child will have no issue waiting their turn and using their patience skills to socially interact with others.

Girl playing with a wooden fire truck and brother waiting

If you are home with your child, utilize activities and games that require people to take turns. Even young children can play simple turn-taking board games, take turns with favorite toys, or even take turns choosing a nightly story to read as a family. When teaching turn-taking, be literal and to the point in your expectations, and be fair.

Use Visuals to Demonstrate Length of Time

Little kids can be very visual learners. Seeing something often makes a concept more concrete and easier to understand. When teaching patience, use visuals to demonstrate time and waiting.

Boy looking at hourglass
  • Use timers. You can utilize stopwatches or small hourglass timekeepers to help kids see how much time has passed and how long they have to go before receiving what they asked for.
  • Visual travel representations. A cut-out of a roadway attached to a space in the car, along with a velcro, movable car, like this one, can make travel time understandable for kids who cannot tell time. Move the velcro car along the road as you get closer to your destination so children can relate the visual to the length of the trip.

When Learning Patience: Practice Makes Better

Philip Zelazo, professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, equates building up stamina in patience to working out in a gym. By going to the gym, a person gains muscle, grows stronger, and becomes faster, but those qualities wear off if that gym membership lapses. The same concept can be applied to practicing patience. If it is practiced steadily, then the skill becomes stronger and more interwoven into a person's makeup. If it isn't practiced, then the skill becomes weaker over time. In the case of patience and children, perfect is not achievable nor realistic. So practice won't make "perfect," but it will make "better." The virtue is not a one-and-done lesson. It is something that gets introduced, practiced, and built upon as children grow and develop.

Modeling Patience for Your Kids

It doesn't matter what lesson you strive to teach your children; whatever it is, be sure to practice what you preach. You are your kids' first teacher and role model, so you need to not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk. If you want them to learn the art of patience and utilize it in their lives, then you have to harness your own abilities to foster patience. Christine Hierlmaier Nelson, published author, communications expert, national parenting columnist, and mother of two, believes that teaching young children patience is the single biggest thing you can do to affect their school success, sense of responsibility, and outlook on life. Yet, before parents can teach it, they have to live it.

Be Aware of Knee-jerk Stress Coping Mechanisms

Do you yell? Hide? Throw things? Once you are aware that things are getting out of hand and you feel the urge to fall back on these old coping mechanisms, stop and breathe. Explain to your loved one or children that you need a moment to collect yourself. Give yourself a time-out and go to a quiet place. Come back when you can control your remarks and actions.

Model How to Wait

When you are standing in line with your children, and they are fussy, model how to busy a mind so that patience can occur. Ask your kids to look for shapes or colors in the room. Pick a song to sing or play a silly rhyming game. Challenge kids to count to ten or 100, then count backward. Essentially, show them that when you become frustrated and impatient, the mind can be redirected and occupied as you wait for something.

Look for the Root and Patiently Communicate

If your child has a tantrum, first think about whether they might be tired, hungry, or overstimulated. Keeping that in mind, bend down to their level, hold them, kiss them and speak quietly to them. Avoid getting visibly emotional or raising your voice. If you are in a public place, you may need to leave with your child to a quiet location until they calm down.

Put Yourself in Your Child's Shoes

Think of how annoyed you get standing in a line for 20 minutes. You text your friend, scroll social media, or leaf through a nearby magazine so you don't pull your hair out as the hands on the clock continue to tick on ever so slowly. Now imagine that you are three years-old, standing in that same line. When you ask your child to be patient, you ask them to exhibit some level of empathy and self-control. Be sure to demonstrate that same trait to your child, who wants out of that line as badly as you do.

Imagine Your Child Acting As You Are

When you are at your wit's end and feeling impatient, imagine your child watching every action and emotion cross your face. Then imagine your child modeling your exact behaviors in the classroom or at a friend's house. Is this the person you want to send out into the world?

Give Yourself a Break

Parents are human. They face a lot of pressure from themselves first, then family and friends, then work and society. It's no surprise we end up blowing up at the ones we love the most. Find ways to wind down, get to bed early at least one night a week, schedule date nights with your partner, make Sunday family day again. Managing your mental health and stress levels will help you practice patience in front of your child more often.

Woman reading book in living room with little son sleeping

Hierlmaier Nelson reminds parents that if they use tools to remain patient, they can better model this virtue for future generations. She emphasizes how vital delayed gratification is to human growth and emotional development. When adults are conscious of their own behaviors, they can better model patience and teach a key parenting component.

The Art of Patience Is a Gift

Is it imperative to teach your children the art of patience? The answer is a resounding yes. Everyone needs to have patience, whether in personal relationships, school, the workplace, or otherwise. Learning to simply wait things out and not be demanding is a gift that parents can give their children when they are very young. They can learn to be patient and practice it as they grow older. Children who learn to be patient reap many benefits throughout their life. They tend to be better friends and neighbors, and they more readily achieve their goals. Mastering the art of patience can even lead to better health outcomes. It isn't always easy to teach youngsters how to wait, but it is worthwhile.

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7 Practical Tips for Teaching Toddlers Patience