Like what you see?
Sign up to receive more free parenting advice.
Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter!
Four-year-old Billy wants a bowl of cut up apple from his mum. Mum is in the middle of folding the laundry.
“Just one minute, let me finish this first,” she explains.
Billy waits 30 seconds before asking again. And again. And again. He wants it RIGHT NOW. Within a couple of minutes of his first request, he is close to melting down.
Most parents can relate to this. Why can’t they just wait?
“When we talk about patience, we’re really talking about a number of capacities and skills for being self-regulated and goal-focused,” explains David Hawes, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Sydney.
“It’s about having internal controls over our behaviour, but also over our attention and emotions.
“It’s often about having an urge to act or respond to something in the present moment and being able to inhibit that response in order to achieve a longer-term goal or delayed reward.”
He says that the neural architecture required for these capacities develops in the brain across childhood and adolescence.
Patience does come with age, after all.
Don’t worry though, you won’t have to wait until your child is an adult before they show patience.
“Psychologists often define patience in terms of child temperament, or the individual differences in early personality that children exhibit from very early life and that are largely based in biology, which is one of the reasons why children of the same age can vary in their ability to delay gratification, deal with boredom and wait their turn,” says Professor Hawes who is also the co-director of the Child Behaviour Research Clinic.
Another reason is the family environment, particularly in early childhood.
“The way parents give children structure and feedback about their behaviour and having a warm and responsive parent-child relationship is something that has been shown to strengthen the executive functions that support patience developing in children,” adds Professor Haws.
“Effective parenting practices can also help to prevent risk factors in a child’s biology from leading to high levels of impulsivity and inattention.”
Early patience can lead to later success
In 2011, American researchers found that individuals who had good self-control in early childhood were more likely to be successful in school and were more likely to have successful careers and harmonious family relationships in adulthood.
Another study in 2018 found that the strongest influence that affects high school completion was patience.
“While there is extensive evidence that preschoolers with high levels of impulsivity and inattention are more likely to struggle later in life, from behavioural problems and risk taking through to anxiety and mood disorders, it doesn’t mean all will,” notes Prof Hawes.
He explains that the preschool years are the best time to identify and address those concerns.
“Parents who receive evidence-based support from professionals can often prevent a whole range of problems from occurring later in life, simply by introducing new parenting strategies into day-to-day home life,” he adds.
While Professor Hawes warns that it is challenging to understand what is age-appropriate behaviour, the best way to check if a child’s development is on track is to observe them in age-appropriate games or group activities that focus on turn-taking.
“All children struggle at times, but if a child is consistently struggling much more than others of the same age and sex, it is worthwhile getting some formal professional assessment,” he recommends.
Skilled early childhood educators can help parents with less formal assessments.
The way parents give children structure and feedback about their behaviour and having a warm and responsive parent-child relationship is something that has been shown to strengthen the executive functions that support patience developing in children.
How to teach patience
Professor Hawes points out that none of us are born with self-regulation (or self control as it is sometimes called).
Instead, we rely on our parents and caregivers for external regulation over our behaviour, attention and emotions.
“If this occurs, in the context of a loving and supportive relationship, this becomes a process of co-regulation between parent and child,” he explains.
“Eventually those external processes become internalised, allowing the child to self-regulate.”
Therefore, Prof Haws says that it isn’t about explicitly teaching children how to be patient but rather about creating opportunities for children to practice those skills and supporting children’s efforts by providing structure and support.
He adds that it also means that children first need to be able to cooperate with external structure and limits (set by parents) before they can internalise those limits.
“Children whose behaviour and emotions are highly dysregulated are often also uncooperative with parents and caregivers, and until parents find effective strategies to improve this cooperation, it is unlikely that a child’s self-regulation will improve,” he explains.
For parents struggling to do this, Professor Haws recommends ParentWorks, which is a free online evidence-based program to improve parenting skills, confidence and child behaviour.
Children’s books on patience
- I can be Patient, By: Campbell Books
- Noah The Patient Polar Bear Cub By: Elizabeth Peña
- Be Patient, Little Raindrop, By: Kara L Benson
- Five Minutes (That's a Lot of Time) (No, It's Not) (Yes, It Is), By: Liz Garton Scanlon, Audrey Vernick
- Llama Llama Red Pajama, By: Anna Dewdney
- Waiting, By: Kevin Henkes
- Unicorn Training, A Story About Patience and the Love for a Pet, By: Amanda Brandon
- Croc Needs to Wait, By: Sue Graves
- The Very Impatient Caterpillar, By: Ross Burach
- I'll Wait, Mr Panda, By: Steve Antony