The waiting game: Encouraging self-regulation in young children

Waiting is tough, but you can help your child develop important life skills and help them win the waiting game.

Children can learn to be successful at waiting.
Children can learn to be successful at waiting.

Waiting is hard for everyone. We spend much of our day waiting. We wait in the grocery store, the bank or during our morning commute. Simply put, waiting is an unavoidable fact of life. Therefore, since it is unavoidable, being able to wait is an important life skill.

Just because it happens doesn’t mean it’s easy. The capability to wait is really a method of self-control, or the ability to regulate one’s own behaviors. We practice self-control in many different ways, whether it’s resisting the urge to eat that second piece of cake or walking away from an argument. We are presented with opportunities each day to control our impulses. Self-control doesn’t come easy, it is a result of training and practice.

Children and waiting

Young children have not yet learned the ability to self-regulate and are not always in control of their impulses. A child may hit a friend who took their toy without missing a beat. Without matured self-regulation skills, waiting can be a very difficult task for young children. Even Cookie Monster has to practice waiting. Inability to wait is often reflected in their behavior through tantrums, whining, crying or misbehavior.

As adults who are practiced in the art of waiting, it is very easy to become impatient with children in these situations. We might think to ourselves, “It’s only a few minutes, what’s the big deal?” But if we take a look at the situation from a child’s perspective, we begin to understand that waiting is a big deal. We don’t expect infants to walk because they are not yet capable. Their bodies have not physically developed enough to be able to walk independently. Similarly, young children may not have developed the cognitive skills required to regulate their own behavior in the expectation of waiting.

Waiting and the brain

As children get older and their brain becomes more developed, they start to gain skills that will allow them to master the art of waiting. They develop longer attention spans and improve their memory skills, which paves the way towards self-regulatory skills. It takes instruction, guidance and support to master these skills. While waiting may seem like a period of inactivity, it’s actually an active pursuit. It takes energy and control to wait because we are managing impulses and self-regulating our thoughts, behaviors and actions. Children do not innately have these skills and without them tasks that require waiting are difficult.

Why wait?

Waiting, and practicing the skills it requires, teaches children a very valuable skill. You are giving them the tools they need in order to gain power and control over their bodies and their minds. When children manage impulses, they are able to make choices, understand consequences and connect with people and their environment. Self-regulation has a direct impact on a child’s social-emotional wellbeing. Did you ever meet someone who engaged you in a conversation and then wouldn’t let you talk? It’s frustrating, right? People who can regulate themselves are better able to connect socially with others and are more in-tune with their environment.

Helping your child learn self-control and practice waiting also teaches them that others have needs as well. When they start to understand other people have needs and desires, they can start to learn about other people’s perspectives, while also grasping that their needs will not always come first.

Having this ability to self-regulate can help them in all areas of their lives during childhood and later into adulthood. Your child may have to wait for their favorite toy at preschool or make it through their sister’s soccer practice before having a snack. These may seem like small things, but developing these skills early on has a much greater, and lasting, impact. In fact, studies show that children who have better self-regulation do better in school.

How can you help a child learn to wait?

Try some of these tips from Michigan State University Extension to encourage self-regulation skills in your children.

Have appropriate expectations. It’s important to think what children are capable of at any given age or developmental stage. When we ask or expect them to do something beyond their current abilities, we are not only setting them up for failure, but we are creating a situation very likely to become stressful for everyone. Asking a young child to sit patiently through a two-hour opera is probably not an appropriate expectation, but waiting a few minutes to go outside is likely something a toddler is capable of doing. Start with small wait times, a minute or two, then begin to slowly work your way up. If other circumstances are at play and your child is hungry, sick, tired, etc., you may need to adjust your expectations.

Be clear. Young children operate in a concrete world and they don’t always understand things that are vague. They need specific and tangible cues, so telling a toddler or young child, “We can have cookies later,” might be confusing. They may ask themselves, “When is later?” “How long?” “What will happen before then?” “How will I know when it’s time?” If you use clear and precise statements like, “We can have cookies after dinner. We will play first, then eat dinner and after that we can eat cookies,” your child is able to begin to understand what is going to happen, which makes waiting easier. Your young child may not understand complicated explanations at first – keep them simple and use cues that your child will recognize (i.e., after lunch versus in an hour).

Try distraction. It’s easier to wait if you’ve got something to do in the meantime. Whether it is toys, books or crayons, providing distractions entertains your child, keeps them occupied and sets them up for success. One helpful method for teaching this important skill is to use “waiting fingers” by teaching your child the baby sign for wait. Having your children show you their waiting fingers while they wait can not only give them a visual cue of what is expected of them, but literally keep their hands busy.

Be prepared. If you know in advance your child will be in a situation where they will have to wait, have a plan in place. Bring a snack, toy or activity that can help keep your child engaged in the meantime. You could keep an emergency activity kit right in your car to pull out on these occasions. It also helps to verbally prepare a child. Give them fair warning, “After we get all of our groceries, we will have to wait in line at the checkout. I brought some books you can read while we wait.”

Practice makes perfect. Give your child easy opportunities to practice this skill. If you jump up to solve your child’s problems or answer their requests immediately, you are missing out on an opportunity to practice waiting. As long as your child is safe, kids generally do not need an immediate response to their requests. If you are emptying the dishwasher when your child asks for milk, they are able and capable of waiting a few moments for you to finish your task. You could try baking something sweet in the morning that you won’t eat until after dinner, like French families do. This is not to say you should outright tempt your children, but everyday routines and experiences present opportunities to fine tune your child’s waiting skills.

Empathize. Let your child know you understand waiting is difficult. Help them know it is OK to be frustrated when they have to wait. Help them give a name to their feelings and encourage them to express those frustrations appropriately.

Make it fun. Help your child keep busy by creating some fun waiting games, like singing silly songs, playing “I spy” or telling your child stories while you are waiting. Make a game out of counting birds out the window while waiting in traffic, or seeing how many shapes you can spot in the checkout line. Your little one will learn valuable skills to entertain themselves and enjoy passing the time.

As with most new skills, your child won’t pick this up the first time you try it. They will need guidance, gentle reminders and encouragement. However, with you on their team, your child can win the waiting game!

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the MSU Extension website.

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