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Home Family Parenting Advice How to teach patience — Good Parenting

How to teach patience — Good Parenting

Impatient childDear Dr. Debbie,

I know that children are impatient, but with three of them I’m often impatient myself. They expect me to help set up a new video game, refill a cup of juice and help put shoes on a doll all in the same moment. Is patience something that can be taught?

Right This Minute

Don’t miss last week’s column Is attachment parenting spoiling or nurturing? — Good Parenting

Dear RTM,

The ability to wait to enjoy something was famously studied at the Bing Preschool at Stanford University in the 1960’s by psychologist Walter Mischel.
In Mischel’s study, a child was offered the choice to eat one marshmallow or to wait a period of time for two marshmallows. During the wait, the one marshmallow was sitting in front of the child.

Over decades of follow-up, Mischel found that the children who were successful at delaying their gratification with the expectation of a greater reward later, had many desirable characteristics as the years went on. They had better social skills, had higher SAT scores, were better able to manage stress and temptation, were less likely to have trouble with the law, were less likely to get divorced, were less likely to have substance abuse issues, and were less likely to be overweight.

The interesting twist to the research was that rather than being limited to predicting outcomes decades after impatience was observed in a preschooler, Mischel decided to explore whether the skill of delaying gratification could be taught. Not only did he see gains in patience for the marshmallow test, these are strategies you can use every day with your own children.

Ways to Build Patience

  1. Hide the distraction
    In one variation of the experiment, the treat was covered up during the waiting period. Children were better at avoiding temptation when it was not visible. This strategy would apply to your first child wanting your attention for a new game when your other children are competing with their needs. Simply put objects that require a lot of adult assistance out of sight until a better time.
  2. Chill the excitement
    Mischel identified impulsiveness as a function of the limbic system, or emotional system. The amygdala is the part of the brain that gets revved up during emotional stimulation and has trouble cooling down. The key here would be to avoid getting a child all excited about something that isn’t able to happen for a while. One successful suggestion in the marshmallow experiment was to have the child convince herself that it was just a picture of a marshmallow. Mischel calls this “reframing.” To help your child defuse his state of emergency, reframe the panic so he sees that getting his juice is one of the steps you are taking, not something that will never happen.
  3. Use positive, not negative distraction
    When children in the experiment were encouraged to sing a song or otherwise mentally focus on something besides the thing they were trying not to do, they were better able to ignore the temptation. A Slinky proved to be an excellent distraction when offered during the waiting period. On the other hand, being asked to think about getting hurt tended to cause a child to want to comfort herself with the treat. This suggests that threats of negative consequences (i.e. “You won’t get to play your new game tonight if you don’t stop bugging me!”) is not an effective guidance strategy if you are trying to promote patience.
  4. Try related distractions
    This tactic makes sense as a way to hold the attraction toward a desired object or activity while actually continuing to wait for it. An example for your child with the doll and the shoes might be to direct her to find other pieces of clothing to add to the outfit, or other dolls that also need to be dressed. This will fill the time until your hands are able to tackle the task she is fixated on. In other words, she gets to be involved in thoughts and actions related to the object of her desire instead of it feeling miles away from fulfillment.
  5. Practice self talk
    A mantra or “self-talk” is an effective patience strategy that can be taught. Some of the successful delayers in the study repeated directions aloud to themselves as they waited, such as “I have to wait to get two marshmallows.” You can put a simple sentence together to apply to a specific situation such as, “Game Time is after the dinner dishes are done” which your child can repeat to help himself get through the interim. There are also patience-inspiring quotes that could become regular mantras for your family such as, “a watched pot never boils” or “good things come to he who waits.” If nothing else, your children will come to associate your chosen phrase with having to wait a bit for something that will, ultimately, come.
  6. Keep your promises
    Mischel recommends that parents instill a strong sense of trust so that children will be able to endure waiting out a delayed reward. If you come through 99.9 percent of the time, it will be much easier for your children to believe that what you say is going to happen will indeed come about. Patience is much easier for those who are rooted in the optimism that things that are promised really do come true.
  7. Be a model
    As with many behavioral traits, children can better learn to be patient when this is how they see their grown-ups acting. Try some of the above strategies on yourself when you feel your patience being tested.

You are probably working on some long term goals that could inspire your little ones such as taking care of a garden, going to a night class, working on a family photo album, saving up for a family vacation or any project that takes some time to complete. Let them see your determination to stay the course as an example of holding out for twice the marshmallows.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.

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