With four children ranging from 6 to 16, one of my most popular sayings is "Honey, you'll just have to wait." But as you know, that's not something any child wants to hear. Instant gratification has become a hallmark of our culture.
Do you give your kids practice waiting? Or do you serve them quickly to avoid a meltdown? We must understand that the more we appease our kids, the more impatient and rude they'll be as adults.
Learning to wait is more important than we may realize. In a landmark Stanford University study, a group of 4-year-olds were each given a marshmallow. The kids were promised another one if they could wait for several minutes without eating the first one. Fourteen years later, as high school seniors, those who had quickly eaten the first marshmallow had lower self-esteem and were more prone to frustration, envy, and conflict. Those who had waited, were more socially competent, coped better with stress and frustration, and got better grades. In fact, those who waited scored an average of 210 points higher on their SATs.
The ability to wait teaches self-control and self-discipline. Kids who learn to wait are better able to think before they act and to understand the potential consequences of their actions. They learn respect and submission to authority. And learning to wait now will enable our children to "wait patiently for the Lord" as Scripture instructs in Psalm 27:14.
As you can see, teaching children to wait is about more than just waiting. Learning to wait also teaches patience, tolerance, delayed gratification, and the fact that other people besides them have needs and rights.
Even toddlers can begin learning to wait. Train your youngsters not to eat until after a blessing has been said, or count to ten slowly before handing them a toy. Such small delays are only a matter of seconds, but they effectively introduce the concept of waiting.
Children this age will not understand verbal explanations. They need experiences. Experience is a much better teacher than mere words.
As parents, we can purposefully teach our children—of any age—the value of waiting. In a microwave society, waiting is a lost art that needs to be revived. Thankfully, there are many practical ways we can teach our children to wait. Here's how:
• Set solid limits. Have boundaries in place and stick with them. "I'll get that ready for you after I've seen you wait patiently" or "You may have that when you aren't being demanding" sends the clear message that you won't be moved by bossiness and impatience.
• Refocus their attention. Whether waiting in line at the grocery store or waiting at the doctor's office, kids can become impatient. Distraction is a powerful tool at any age. Play a guessing game, such as "I Spy," with a young child. For older kids, ask them to tell you their ideas for a family vacation. Use distraction methods based on your child's age and interests.
• Teach by example. Whether 3 or 13, children learn best by example. Not only toddlers, but teens can also benefit from modeling. Take note of your everyday lifestyle: Do you charge a pair of shoes at the mall or save up until you have enough cash? Do you pass frequently on the highway just to get one car length ahead? Be the example you want to see in your children.
• Avoid the words "hurry up." Toddlers and preschoolers are notorious for dawdling, so instead of always telling them to hurry up, make some time allowances for it. When young children are routinely told to hurry, it instills in them a pattern of pressuring others, themselves, and life in general to hurry up, which results in temper tantrums when things do not happen as quickly as they want. As children this age grow and mature, they can more readily understand why it's important that they not keep others waiting unnecessarily.
• Conduct an experiment. Toddlers through tweens will appreciate the time it takes for a plant to grow. Involve the kids in the process of planting a seed and watching its growth. Throughout the process, explain how everything in life takes time to change from the way things are to how they're going to be. Teach the verse, "For everything there is a season" (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
• Use visuals. Younger children especially often need a visual when it comes to waiting for a particular event to happen. If it's 4:30 and supper is at 5:00, use a timer. If the family getaway is in 18 days, use a calendar and allow children to mark off the days as each one goes by. Sometimes the difficulty with waiting is simply not knowing when it will end.
• Don't tolerate interruptions. Let's face it: from toddlers to teens, kids interrupt. We may even do it ourselves at times. But interrupting not only displays impatience; it's also rude. Unless it's an emergency (as defined by you), make it clear that your children are to wait for their turn to speak.
• Play a lot of board games. Most board games require taking turns, which obviously means waiting. Purposefully choose these types of games. You'll give your kids lots of practice waiting and they won't even realize it. Toddler games have age-appropriate minimal waiting. Chess and Checkers are good for tweens. And a game like Scrabble? is perfect for teenagers.
• Acknowledge and reinforce patient waiting. Don't become so intent on teaching your children to wait that you forget to praise them when they do. If your toddler patiently waits for a sippy cup to be filled while you feed the baby, thank him or her specifically for waiting well. If your teen saved up money for an iPad say, "I'll bet you're glad you waited until you had the money to buy that instead of having to pay interest charges on a credit card."
• Don't be Mr. or Mrs. Fix-It. When we always come to our kids' rescue, we do them a great disservice. Yes, we want our kids to know we'll always be there for them, but that's different from always bailing them out. For example, if your tween loses a cell phone, don't immediately replace it. Instead, have him or her save some money to help cover the cost of a new one. Don't try to fix everything immediately.
• Prepare to wait. Sometimes we know our kids will have to wait, in a hospital waiting room or doctor's office, for example. Come prepared. Allow kids to pack a small backpack of things to keep them occupied. Because they are things of their own choosing, they are more likely to hold their interest.
• Keep a positive attitude. If you complain about waiting in a line of traffic or for an anticipated check to arrive in the mail, your kids will pick up on your impatience. Be determined to remain positive about life's waiting moments by saying something like "This line of traffic gives us more time to tell each other about our day" or "I hope the check arrives today, but if not that's okay; God has perfect timing."
No matter our children's ages, learning to wait is a valuable skill that will go with them throughout their lives.
Tammy Darling is a freelance writer living in Three Springs, Pennsylvania.