Remember the last time you asked your toddler to wait just a second for something, and that only made them more desperate and relentless for the thing they wanted? Toddlers are known for many things and patience ain’t one. They are beginners and they need to stretch their patience muscles. But as parents, it is entirely possible that we are not teaching them to strengthen those muscles in the most effective way.
Dr. Harvey Karp, a pediatrician best known for his book The Happiest Baby on the Block, writes on his blog that the patience-stretching technique can help toddlers learn to wait for something a tiny bit at a time. Here’s how he does it:
Give them what they want—almost
The first thing to do when your toddler wants something is to repeat back what they want so they know you understand. “Oh, you want more milk!” you might say when they point to their glass, or “You want to read Goodnight Moon again!” at bedtime. Now, Karp says you should start to give them what they want…
BUT…then suddenly hold up one finger and exclaim, “Wait! Wait! Just one second!” as if you just remembered something important. Turn away and pretend to look for something.
Now really give it to them
After a few seconds, turn and hand them the milk or start reading the book, but before you do, praise their patience by saying, “Good waiting!” Karp says this teaches young kids that waiting isn’t too bad, and if you ask them to wait, you’ll still keep your word and give them what they’re asking for.
Start with five seconds and practice every day, gradually working your way up to 10 seconds, then 20, then 30, and so on.
Introduce a timer
As your toddler starts to get better at waiting, Karp suggests introducing a timer to help them practice more.
During a calm period, show your toddler how the timer works: “See! And when Mr. Dinger says ding! (make it chime) then Mommy comes back fast!”
Later, when your 3-year-old starts bugging you for something, say, “Sure!” and almost give it to him, but then suddenly announce, “Wait, wait! Just a second, sweetheart! I have to go see Daddy. As soon as Mr. Dinger rings I can give you the ____!” (You might suggest that your child play or look at a book until the timer dings, but don’t insist on it.)
Again, start small with 20 seconds and work your way up to a minute or two. He says to shake things up once in a while by setting the timer for shorter amounts of time (to give the impression of waiting going by faster than they expected) or offering a secondary award, such as a special treat, for good waiting.
It may feel a bit like teasing at first, but Karp makes the distinction that teasing would be to “taunt a child by offering the thing he wants with no intention of giving it.” You are going to give them what they want, as soon as they’ve stretched their patience a bit.
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