How to Teach Patience to Your Toddler

If your child whines when she has to be patient, play it smart with these ideas.

Whether you're at the grocery store or the doctor's office, you know to expect a wait at many places you go. It's usually no big deal -- unless, of course, you have a toddler in tow. Your child likely gets loud, fidgety, and whiny at the slightest holdup, and a cringe-worthy meltdown may follow. "At this age, kids don't have the ability to delay gratification," says Pete Stavinoha, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Children's Medical Center in Dallas. Thus, even a short wait may seem never-ending to her. Following these tips will help her start to develop patience -- and enable you to pass the time together pleasantly.

Get Physical

Have your child work off some energy while he's waiting in line. Ask if he can march like a soldier, hop like a frog, or sway like a tree in the wind, suggests Annie Fox, author of Teaching Kids to Be Good People. "Simon says" is another diverting activity for an older toddler. Your child will be so focused on the movements that he'll likely forget about the delay -- at least for a bit.

Play Games

Toddlers love to learn and, like adults, they're proud to share what they know with others, says Maureen Dawn Healy, author of Growing Happy Kids. Let your child show off her smarts by giving her a category, such as animals or food, and having her name some examples. You can also ask her to point out body parts as she sings "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes."

Goof Around

Being silly with your toddler is a great way to distract him. Do some creative editing to his favorite song lyrics ("Row, row, row your shoe, gently down the street") or rhymes ("Humpty Dumpty sat on a cat"). Because your child knows the real words, he'll get a giggle out of your changes. Funny facial expressions work too. Take turns looking happy, sad, angry, and sleepy. You can scrunch your nose and raise your eyebrows. Sound effects work too: Barking like a puppy and buzzing like a bee can delight your little one. (Note: Ignore the funny looks from others in line!)

Be Prepared

You probably already know to pack a snack or a favorite toy for those stuck-in-a-queue situations. It's also a good idea to tote along a picture book or a mini board game that comes out only during long waits, so your child finds them special. Throw some wacky items into the mix, suggests Joni Levine, author of 365 Toddler Activities That Inspire Creativity. Squish some masking tape into a ball and let her try to unstick it, or take turns making different shapes with a piece of aluminum foil.

Give Kudos

When your child behaves well while waiting to mail a package at the post office, you should praise him, says Dr. Stavinoha. Say, "Wow. I know someone who did a really terrific job being patient just now." Your child will let out an excited "Me!" It's a win-win: He feels proud of himself, and because you reinforced his positive behavior he's more likely to repeat it the next time you're delayed.

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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