Wait Loss: Teaching Our Kids the Value of Waiting

By Dennis Demanett

In the womb or in gridlock, waiting is the essence of our being. So what’s the rush?

While sitting in gridlock the other day, I was struck by the irony of traffic going nowhere fast. All the people in their shiny cars, motionless, in their rush to be somewhere else. Highways force us to wait. Oh, we can pull out our cell phones and make calls we could have made if we were sitting in the office. But the truth is, when we are in gridlock traffic, we have to wait whether we like it or not.

Humans, you see, were made for waiting. It is in the very essence of our being.

Why not recognize this? Every phase of human development reflects a process of assimilating, internalizing and then bringing forth a new, transformed quality. The waiting period may be short – as short as a breath – or long – as long as the nine months from conception to birth. The key to finding health in human existence is probably not only recognizing when a waiting period needs to take place, but also when it is over. If we could experience in childhood this kind of balance in waiting, our adult lives might be just a little bit less hectic.

Our Hurried Life

The greatest monster of our time was born in the industrial revolution, if not before: the monster of hurry. Hurry became instant gratification sometime in the 1980s, I reckon. The need to wait ceased to be recognized by parents, because they did not want to wait anymore. I see it. I want it. I gotta have it. Presto! I got it. In one breath, if you please. The funny thing is, whether we believe it or not, waiting will rear its head in some form or another: gridlock, illness, weather, growth processes of the physical body.

Let’s focus for a moment on children. The human child, unlike any other creature on earth, has a wonderfully long time to grow into maturity. Think, first, of the newborn baby: Here is a wonder, worth waiting for, as all parents would agree. Once born, this tiny, helpless being must wait a year or so before he can stand up and walk. Yet our society has found ways to hurry this process along with walkers, swings and devices that artificially place the baby in upright positions.

Why do we do this? What’s the hurry? Have we stopped to think what might be lost for the child who does not get to crawl, to struggle with standing up? Struggling teaches every growing child something that “instant gratification” and “hurry” fail to instill. Struggling teaches perseverance, endurance, courage and awareness that, when faced with difficulty, it is possible to overcome the obstacle. The baby who stumbles, steps, lands splat on the ground again and again is, in fact, learning far more than how to walk.

As the child gets older, he will desire to have things, to experience things. And the parent wants this for the child, too. We all know we cannot give children everything they want. Yet, don’t we all forget and jump too quickly into the role of Instant Gratifier? Did we start this back in infancy when the child screamed? (Quick feed her! What’s the matter? Don’t cry – here have this, eat this, do this, oh, please, baby, be happy!”) 

Waiting Is Learning

Part of the waiting game is a crying game. The healthy child has to learn how to deal with disappointment. And that can mean waiting until he is older to stay up late, waiting until he can go to a movie. All this waiting actually helps the child relax. The waiting child becomes a secure child. Such a child begins to know that there are going to be wonderful moments in life, moments she has anticipated, dreamed of and then realized. Such a child will learn that there are also aspects of life that may not happen for a long time, if ever, and that, too, is just fine.

It is frightening to think of the number of bored young people in our country today who do not see the value of waiting. A child who hasn’t learned to wait, who has not enjoyed preparations for some event as much as the event itself, is a candidate for seeking types of stimulation that drugs and alcohol can provide. Waiting teaches regulation in the young human being. It teaches a sense of moderation, of the importance of doing what is healthy for the self.

As parents, we need to trust the waiting process as our children grow. Surely, when a 5-year-old jumps into the car behind the wheel, we are going to be wise enough not to let the child drive, even though he wants to! And when a 10-year-old wants to spike her hair, get a navel ring and meet her friends at the mall, we will have the courage and the sense to say, “No dear, that can wait.”

If we can give our children a strong sense of the importance of waiting, establishing it as a habit for life, then benefits of every kind will follow. If nothing else, imagine this child of yours stuck in gridlock and see her saying to herself, “Ahhh, a chance to wait. Just what I need! I can think about something important, because I know that waiting is a part of life, and I know how to do it.”

Dennis Demanett has taught in Waldorf schools for 27 years and is currently a sixth-grade teacher.