Teaching Patience to Your Preschooler

How to teach your preschooler that patience is indeed a virtue


Illustration by Lillian Chan

Long before Pamela Druckerman introduced North American parents to the French term for “big eyes” in her 2012 bestseller Bringing Up Bébé (Penguin Press), I remember my own mother casting, as Druckerman describes it, her “stern look of admonishment” whenever I was out of line. Those eyes were my cue to behave, or to wait.

Instilling patience in your preschooler is a crucial, even time-sensitive, life skill, and it helps to understand where she is in terms of development. By age three or four she is moving away from the egocentrism of her toddler years, and even further from the helplessness of infancy. She is just starting to understand other people’s points of view through new social relationships made at daycare, in school or at drop-in community centres. The seeds of empathy and, more specifically, the ability to feel and experience the emotions and thoughts of others, are being sown at this critical stage.

Mind your manners

Jennifer St. Jean, director of The Open Door Childcare Centre in Abbotsford, B.C., says patience and good manners—such as using Please and Thank You—go hand in hand, and that’s why a unit on manners is rolled into the centre’s curriculum. “Through that,” she says, “we teach trust and patience, love and kindness.”

The centre has also adopted a five-minute rule says St. Jean. The children don’t exactly know what five minutes are yet, “but they know they have to wait their turn at the water fountain or wait their turn when washing their hands.” How two friends share a toy is a perfect example: “The first friend gets a turn and then the second child says, ‘Five minutes, please.’ We always say, ‘Five minutes, please.’ They know in a few minutes it will be their turn. And that friend knows, ‘My five minutes are up.’ So it’s sharing too.” St. Jean says the same rule can easily be adapted at home to a family’s needs and activities.

Read more: How to Keep Your Cool When Your Kids Push Your Buttons

Take the lead

Modelling patience by keeping your own reactions in check and using calm or encouraging words helps too, as does listening carefully, says St. Jean. “We get down on our knees and we talk to the children. We try to understand where they are coming from.”

Parenting expert Alyson Schafer is even more direct about the merits of teaching patience. “It’s our job to move a child from their natural protective, egocentric stance and to train them to think of others and to co-operate. If we don’t respond to having them focus elsewhere, they’ll continue to keep a self-interested attitude and that’s why we get indignant, self-righteous kids who want it now,” she says. “Not everybody gets to be the line leader, you know? We need to wait.”

Schafer, like Druckerman, is an advocate of delaying gratification to teach patience. Schafer cites a daycare that will limit the pieces of papers a child can use in one day for drawing. “When the paper is done, that’s it, you’re done, you’ve coloured your three specimens for today and you can wait until tomorrow. And that’s frustrating because the children are having a good time and they’d like to colour more pages. Well, more will come tomorrow,” she says.

Some children, adds Schafer, will also have an “I want it my way” focus. “We’re trying to shift that focus to ‘What could you do for others?’ You’re helping somebody when you’re patient. You are learning to be co-operative when you’re patient. Sometimes we need to wait because other things are more important,” says Schafer. Delays can be difficult for preschoolers, so acknowledge your child’s efforts, says Schafer, who suggests phrases like, “Thanks for waiting. I know that it is hard, but you really managed and it was appreciated.”

Just hang on

Schafer says that as children grow older, most will not need constant reminders to wait. “Things do improve as they grow their ability to be patient and to have trust in a world that is predictable, and as parents follow through on what they have promised,” she says. That includes the guarantee of things like more colouring paper.

Still, developing this skill does takes time. This reminds me of a girlfriend who told the story of boarding a flight with her two young boys. She gently asked her toddler to be patient, only to hear the preschooler say: “But mom, patience takes a long time.” True, but people will thank you for it someday.

Jacquelyn Francis’ four-year-old son is actually quite patient, but he is a bit of a loud talker.


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