Developing Patience

“How many more days, mom? How many more?” Every December, my kids would be hyper-charged with excitement for the winter holidays. Sometimes their eagerness was infectious, other times they drove me crazy with their incessant demand for Christmas to hurry up and come already. “It’s taking too long, mom. I want Christmas now!”

In many families, the Thanksgiving dishes are barely washed and put away when the preparations for Christmas begin. Even the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade ends with Santa Claus coming to town. Holiday decorations and deals have been in stores since mid-October. It’s no wonder that children find it hard to wait several more weeks for the festivities to begin. Most are novices when it comes to practicing the virtue of patience.

Fortunately, patience is a skill that can be learned. Two researchers – philosopher Timothy Pawl and psychologist Sarah Schnitker – have teamed up to study the development of patience. Their findings suggest several ways that we can encourage children to be patient in the midst of holiday fever.

Explore children’s feelings. Name together the happy experiences your kids anticipate, as well as any anxieties they are hoping to resolve. They might feel excited to participate in certain rituals or events, ready for a break from school expectations, eager to see extended family members, or worried whether they will get certain gifts they desire. Affirm their emotions and agree that waiting can be tough.

Introduce the concept of ‘willpower’. Share that feelings are things we can choose to manage. Explain that they can pay attention to how they are feeling and then decide whether they want to embrace that emotion or try to redirect it. For example, if anxiety about gifts is creating impatience, they can choose to think about the pleasure they experienced opening gifts in the past and imagine how good that feeling will be this time. Or if they are tired of school, they can choose to focus on the relief they feel as they mark off each day on a calendar.

Practice being patient together. Invite each family member to identify one or more ways that they will use willpower to manage their impatience. Create a chart where each person can share how their efforts went each day, and hold periodic check-ins to encourage and support one another. You can also agree to use the word ‘willpower’ as a codeword to remind each other of your commitments when impatience creeps back in.

Name the good things that come from waiting patiently. Holiday festivities are not the only rewards that await children at the end of this process. Brainstorm together other good things that result from developing patience. These might include reduced anxiety, feeling better prepared to overcome obstacles, a heightened sense of agency, less irritability, greater awareness of the pleasurable aspects of anticipation, and/or other positive outcomes. Encourage children to name every benefit that comes to mind, no matter how mundane, silly or outrageous it might seem. There’s as much benefit in the brainstorming process as in the outcomes identified.



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