First of all, you don’t.
Sorry—that’s probably not a great way to start this blog, but it’s true. Wait! Don’t click that Exit button just yet. There are a few strategies and practices you can add to your anti-tantrum toolbox.
I am a single mama to three girls, ages 12, 8, and 3. In other words, I’ve had a kid in the toddler/preschool phase for over a decade. And, like most parenting advice I give, what I’ve learned about toddlers and patience has come from my many, many parenting failures.
First, you’ve got to know a little something about the cognitive abilities of a toddler before you can successfully approach a lesson on patience. For a concrete-thinking toddler, nothing is real unless it’s real right now. When you express abstract concepts like, “If you wait until after dinner, you can have that popsicle you’re begging for,” you are basically speaking a different language to them.
So, what are we to do? Deal with pre-dinner temper tantrums for the foreseeable future? How can we teach a concept like patience—a concept even adults struggle with—to a toddler who can’t even wipe their own tush?
#1: Define patience.
Like many things in life, teaching a toddler patience will require you to have realistic expectations. If you expect perfect patience 100 percent of the time, you are going to get discouraged quickly. Besides, I’m pretty sure precisely zero people on the planet are perfectly patient. Work toward consistency, not constancy.
#2: Focus your pursuit.
I’m a real all-or-nothing kind of girl, so this one is a challenge for me. But when it comes to practicing patience, try zeroing in on one scenario at a time. Take my toddler, Sailor. She is a big baby. Always has been. She also loves milk. She’d have milk forty-seven times a day and doesn’t really care for solid foods—even at three-years-old. But at her last pediatrician’s appointment, he expressed concern about her weight
CUE THE OVERWHELMING PARENT GUILT.
Basically, we had to cut back on milk and up her healthy-food intake. We went down from five or six sippy cups of milk per day to three.
Now, when my toddler asks for (demands) milk, we practice patience.
Sailor: “I WANT MILK.”
Me: “You can have milk after you eat this.”
*Hands her a banana*
Sailor: “No, I want milk! Gimme MILK!”
*Sees her approach is not working. Puts on her best pout.*
“Mama. I can please have milk now?”
Me: *Fights the urge to give in, because she’s the baby and I work too much and she’s so old and grown up-looking with her hair like that.*
“Banana, then milk.”
Sailor: *Eats the banana in record time. Then, only drinks a couple sips of milk because she’s full.*
See, the banana is a bridge. It connects the abstract to the concrete. She can hold the banana in her hand. Over time, she learns that the milk comes after the food. The entire experience creates a tangible reference point for her mind to wrap around.
Not only am I teaching her how to eat like a normal human being, but I’m also slowly building her cognitive concept of waiting for what she wants.
If I tried to create a teachable moment every instance that Sailor showed impatience, I would lose my mind. Also, I would fail. But focusing your efforts on a recurring demonstration of impatience gives your kid the repetition and consistency required for them to succeed.
#3: Practice when the stakes are low.
If you’re running into Target to grab a gift for a birthday party that you’re already late for, chances are you’re in no state to manage a toddler-meltdown while waiting in line to check out. This is not the best moment to try and teach your preschooler patience—not for either of you.
Instead, once or twice a week, practice some games that involve patience. For example, “Simon Says” is a real throwback that only allows your kid to complete a task if you’ve said, “Simon Says” first.
When they’re showing patience during the game, point it out. Say, “Great job waiting for me to say ‘Simon Says.’ You’re showing a lot of patience.”
You can also practice by helping them understand how long one minute is. During playtime, open your phone’s timer and tell them that you’re going to set it for one minute. See who can sit still for one minute. Or jump up and down for one minute. Or keep a straight face for one minute. The next time you ask them to wait one minute for what they want RIGHT NOW!, you can say, “Hey, remember how easy it was to hop up and down for one minute? You can do it! You can wait.”
#4: Own your part.
Our toddlers are mirrors of the people they spend the most time with—mostly the people in their house. Every word you say is being recorded by their little minds and will inevitably come right out of their mouths. Kind of a nightmare, right? The same is true for your actions. (Think: how you respond when someone is driving slowly on the interstate or cuts you off with their cart at Target.)
Besides (and this is my most passionate parenting soap-box), we cannot expect our children to exhibit behaviors, practices, or habits that we don’t exhibit ourselves. Likewise, you can fully expect your kids to mimic your behaviors, practices, and habits. At least in part!