Got Patience? Does Your Child?
By Deirdre Wilson
Kids are naturally impatient.
They don’t like to wait in line. They get frustrated if they can’t zip up a coat or score a basket on the first few tries. And if there’s something they really want, you can count on them wanting it right now.
It’s normal. Patience requires self control, and that’s a skill kids learn as they grow.
But lately, some parents and teachers worry that children are more impatient than ever.
They wonder why kids can’t seem to focus in on a word problem at school, an exhibit at the zoo or a parent’s explanation about the stars in the sky. Instead, children seem quickly distracted, always moving on to something else.
Families today are fully immersed in a lifestyle of instant gratification. We’re also busier, and more materialistic, scheduled and rushed. Have our kids become less patient because of it?
Diane Levin, an education professor at Boston’s Wheelock College and a national expert on the effects of media on children, believes there’s an increasing sense of impatience among kids in the classroom.
While recently revising her 1998 book Remote Control Childhood: Combating the Hazards of Media Culture (National Association for the Education of Young People, 1998), Levin has interviewed teachers on the changes they’ve seen in young children. She keeps hearing the same thing – that when it comes to problem-solving or more complicated tasks, kids can’t stay on task.
“What I’m hearing … from teachers of kindergarten and first grade is that these kids have less self-regulatory skills, less self-regulation,” she says. “It seems like a big escalation.”
Levin calls it “problem solving deficit disorder,” and she’s been talking about it for several years. “These are the kids who were born when the huge push for media for babies began. You had Baby Einstein, a round-the-clock TV channel just for young kids, little mini computer-type books and toys with push buttons for babies.”
The trouble, she insists, is that the more dependent young kids become on computer screens, fast-changing images and topics on TV, or electronic toys, the harder it is for them to take the time to focus on solving a real-world problem.
“If a child is building a tower with blocks and they fall over, the problem is, ‘How can I make the tower taller?’ Children keep trying and they learn by making the blocks on the bottom bigger,” she says. But kids playing with electronic gadgets might dabble with one toy or computer game for 10 minutes and then simply move on to the next, she says.
Worse, with electronic games and computers, kids are dependent on the gadget’s agenda, not their own imaginations, Levin adds. And imaginative play has long been credited with helping children learn life skills, such as patience and self control.
Us or Them?
On the other hand, psychologist and play therapy expert Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., wonders if parents themselves are fostering impatience in their kids without realizing it.
“It goes both ways. We’re also rushing our children a lot, and then they’re impatient with us,” says Cohen, the author of several parenting and child development books, including Playful Parenting (Ballantine Books, 2002). “They’ve picked that up from us because we’re often rushing them.”
Think of it this way, he says: If you and your child are playing make-believe together, who’s done playing sooner? You are, most likely.
“We don’t realize that when we’re saying, ‘Come on, we’ve got to get dressed and get out of the house to get to school on time,’ we’re dragging them into our world. All we see is that they’re not being cooperative, that they’re dragging their feet,” Cohen says. “When we’re in their world – their kind of play world – they’re in this flow where time has a different meaning. We don’t get into that flow as easily. After a few minutes, we’re done.”
Parents also have a preconceived idea of what play should look like, Cohen says. We worry about a child racing from one play structure to another at a park, instead of lingering to enjoy each one. “Really it means they’re excited, operating at a different speed – that they want to check out each thing before settling on one thing,” Cohen says. “There’s nothing wrong with it, but we have a preconceived idea about it: ‘What do you mean you want to go to something else? We just got here!’”
Whatever the reasons for kids’ impatience, Cohen and Levin offer great tips for nurturing more self control:
• Surrender to the moment. Whether your kids want to run from one zoo exhibit to another or just go through the entrance gate turnstile over and over, “join them in their world” and don’t try to push them too quickly to move on, Cohen says. By first appreciating what your kids want to do, you’re role-modeling patience for them.
• If your child is the type who never seems to focus on one thing for long, set aside time each week to go at their pace. “As hard as it is to bounce around from one thing to the next … stick with it a little longer and enjoy your kids,” Cohen says. “It helps them feel connected to you. Your child will feel like, ‘Mom gets me.’” Then devote some time each week to slowing down and focusing on one thing. “You gently say, ‘No, we’re not going to take out any more toys; we’re going to just stick with this one for awhile,’” Cohen says. Be relaxed but firm, he says.
• If you have to say no to a child or teen who really wants some new gadget or toy right now, acknowledge their frustration. “When we say no, there’s no reason we can’t be relaxed and light about it,” Cohen says. “But we need to stick around and listen to kids’ angry feelings about hearing no – ‘Yeah, I get that you’re mad but the answer has to be no.’”
• Help your kids nurture interests away from computers or electronic toys. Limit screen time, but be prepared to offer something else the child can do instead. “Parents say to me, ‘You keep telling me play is important, but all my kids want is to put the screen on and play video games,’” Levin says. Try making dinner together or doing a craft project. Identify your kids’ interests and play alongside them, she says. If your child likes action figures, take them into the bathtub and experiment with whether the toys sink or float. “Whatever your kid’s most interested in now, think of a way to bring in something new that opens it up a little bit,” Levin says.
• When stuck waiting in line, in the car or at a doctor’s appointment, play games to pass the time. Try playing “I Spy,” where you spot something of a certain shape or color and the child has to guess what it is. “Develop rituals like that – something you all love doing together,” Levin says. “Sing a song together. Plug into a ritual instead of a portable computer game.”
Deirdre Wilson is senior editor with Dominion Parenting Media.