Babies and young children have very little capacity for patience, since they are naturally focused on meeting their needs at the exact moment they experience them. A toddler has no concept of time-past or future-so telling him that "Dinner will be ready in five minutes" or "Be patient" is meaningless. The best way to help toddlers wait is simply to distract them with a toy or other interesting objects, or do something fun to pass the time, like count or sing songs. Parents can begin to help older toddlers grasp the concept of time by talking about the sequence of activities-"First we'll go to the park, then we'll have lunch, then it will be time to play with Justin."
While preschoolers are less oppositional than two-year-olds, they still are oriented toward immediate gratification and have difficulty conceptualizing future events. A preschooler who is told that she's visiting Grandma next Tuesday may wait a few hours and then ask, "Are we leaving now?" Checking off days on a calendar will make time more concrete. In addition, preschoolers' increasing verbal skills help them manage their emotions. A parent can empathize, saying, "I know how hard it is to wait," and then help the child come up with things to do in the meantime.
Long waits can trigger a tantrum, particularly if a child is hungry or tired. Her natural proclivity for fantasy play, however, can work to a parent's advantage: Imaginary scenarios ("We're going on a camping trip.let's think of what to pack") can capture her interest and take her mind off her frustration.
When children reach school age, they often begin to show increased patience. Two major factors are at work. First, kids this age are learning to tell and understand time; and second, they are beginning to be able to delay gratification. A six-year-old waiting on line at DisneyWorld, for example, may calmly distract himself by chatting with parents or friends. He may be able to monitor the time on a watch, which gives him a sense of control.
At school, kids are starting to show perseverance in their ability to concentrate and complete a classroom assignment. However, many are still distractible and fidgety when asked to sit still too long, which is one reason why lengthy homework assignments are not recommended.
In the later elementary grades, most kids are developmentally able to be patient. They understand time and can accept the notion of waiting for a future reward. They are also better at taking other people's perspectives. For example, an eight-year-old can understand that her parents may have to walk slowly so her two-year-old sister can catch up.
At school, kids this age have a greater attention span and are capable of focusing and concentrating for a longer period of time. A nine-year-old can usually sit through several classmates' presentations before he gets his turn to read his book report.
Preteens typically revisit some of the issues they wrestled with as two-year-olds. They seek to establish their independence from their parents, and are largely focused on meeting their own needs and wants. They can be oppositional and demanding, demonstrating less patience than they did a few years earlier.
However, they may demonstrate great patience and perseverance if they're engaged in something that's very important to them. A preteen who nearly writhes on the floor because her mother is tying up the phone line may spend hours practicing her guitar.
Young teens and preteens are similar in their tendency toward impatience--unless the task or activity is very important to them. As they move toward adulthood, however, they gradually accept waiting as a part of life - whether it's waiting for traffic to clear at an intersection or waiting for graduation day. They may also begin to realize that to reach a goal, you must be patient. Studying requires perseverence. Jobs, promotions, and pay raises don't happen instantaneously but have to be earned them over time.
It's important to remember, however, that patience is temperamental as well as developmental. Some people are naturally patient; others will struggle with it throughout their lives.