impatient toddler

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Is there anything I can do to help my 3-year-old to be more patient? He especially hates it when I’m on the phone or busy with the baby. When can I expect him to understand how time works, and that I can’t always do two things at once?

Not Now

Don’t miss last week’s column Teaching toddlers right from wrong – Good Parenting

Dear Not Now,

Age 3 is too early to fully comprehend how time moves. As a temporally challenged adult, I continue to struggle with time’s rules and limitations! From a child development point of view, children are very concrete in their thinking until around age 7. Until this point, they best understand real objects and observable actions, leaving lots of room for doubt, confusion and frustration when they don’t “see” what you mean. In other words, when you say “later” your son hears “never” if he has no tangible proof of your promise. Respecting this, here are a few concepts that should be within his grasp.

Keep routines

An adept parent learns to weave the needs of multiple children (and possibly the adults) into daily routines. Routine actions for dressing, eating and bedtime help these events go more smoothly for everyone. For example, a young child doesn’t have to “wait” for his bedtime story if this routinely happens after toileting, toothbrushing and changing into pajamas. The bedtime ritual can include his choosing two books for you to read, and taking them to the reading place. This may give you just enough time to change the baby for the night.

Juggling two children, two toothbrushes, two sets of pajamas, etc. can be accomplished with thoughtful setup adequately timed before the little ones are too tired to cooperate. Self care skills are rapidly improving for your 3-year-old, although it probably takes him much longer than if you just did everything for him. If the things he will need are kept within his reach — or put out just before bedtime — there will be fewer items he has to wait for you to get for him while you are holding the baby. For parts of the routine, the baby may be satisfied to play with something while you attend to the preschooler. So keep an infant seat, toys or at least pull out some interesting gadgets wherever you find yourself wishing you had spare hands.

If there is a second adult at home, divide and conquer during demanding times. One can take the preschooler and the other, the baby. This should take care of competition for your attention.

Provide visual clues

If your son is anxious for food to be put in front of him, you can increase his hopefulness and lessen his impatience with a sign of progress. Similar to a progress bar or little spinning wheel on a website, you can set out assurances of the food’s imminence with a plate and fork. Likewise, if you’ve promised to take the children for a walk, set out the baby carrier backpack or anything else your son would associate with the fulfillment of this promise.

Give something to hold

The eyes are one route to your son’s nervous system, connecting his brain to the thing or action he is waiting for, and his hands are another. It’s amazing to see the power of a movie ticket in the clutches of a young child awaiting admission to the theater. Rather than standing in line “doing nothing” there is great expectation in literally holding the ticket to the coming experience. At home, you can employ this technique using such things as the bottle of bubbles and or the bubble blower as you track down everyone’s sweaters. Or have him hold the screw driver for you as you position each screw in the kit for his build-it-yourself wagon.

Provide a written promise

Much like a movie ticket, the written word on a scrap of paper reminds a child that your words will translate into action. If you can’t immediately fulfill his request to play puzzles, hand him a written promise of your intentions — perhaps with a graphic of what the clock will look like when it is a more convenient time. Just make sure it’s within his patience limit.

Count down

If you are rushed through dinner to prepare the next course for impatient diners, try calculating how many more forkfuls you need to complete before you can get up. Add some dramatic emphasis, such as tilting your emptying plate in his direction, as he learns the backward order of numbers. Besides giving him physical evidence of time moving forward, the math part of his brain gets a stimulating challenge.

For your phone calls, I am reminded of the days when only one phone line came into our house (with no “call waiting”) and my mother enforced a three-minute limit during peak telephone hours — essentially after school until bedtime. The hour-glass shaped three-minute egg timer was the standard we learned to honor to keep our phone privileges. You might respectfully impose a limit on yourself during the hours your son needs you the most. Just show him before the next call how to turn and watch the timer to indicate he is going to patiently wait for you.

Provide distractions

By the way, a waiting room is incomprehensible for a young child. They can’t wait. So plan ahead to bring what he will be doing in the room, for as long as it might take before you are seen. Bring books, hand-held toys, conversation and snacks, if permissible, when you head out for a medical appointment or other such challenge to his patience.

With your patience in investing in these tips, your son’s patience is sure to grow.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds 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

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