Helping Children to Wait (without electronic devices)

By Marté J. Matthews, LMFT





We’ve all been in this situation: you’ve got something you’ve just got to do. Your kids are with you, and you need the children to wait. Your first instinct is to pull out our phone and hand it to our child so he or she can play a video game or watch a cartoon. Great, they are busy while you take care of the business at hand. Sometimes this is the easiest solution. But is it the only solution?


As we’ve all become more aware of all the negative effects of excessive screen time, perhaps you’ve wished for some other solution to this problem. How to help children wait patiently? With a little planning ahead, you can teach your children ways to amuse themselves when they need to wait.

So often we find ourselves delayed and needing to wait in the car. Or maybe you drive someplace like a restaurant so you and your children are waiting for your meal to come. The phone is an easy way to pass them time, but then your child won’t want to give it up when the meal comes. The solution? In our family, we called it the “Big Orange Bag of Fun,” but yours doesn’t have to be orange. Keep a collection of paper and art supplies, a favorite old book or graphic novel, a gallon zipper bag of Legos, a card game, and a few other fun things for each child in an old tote or backpack. The trick is the backpack only gets opened for these special occasions. Once in a while just rotate out the supplies, toss out the trash & restock.

Depending on the situation, different solutions can be found. For instance, in the grocery store you have one “helping” by taking every Oreo package off the shelf, and the other one sitting in the basket complaining about being bored. We’ve all been there, rushing to pick up dinner. But wait, this solution starts before you get out of the car. On your way to the store, talk about what you need to find once you are there. Decide now: do your kids each get to pick out one thing on this trip, or not? Set the rules before you arrive and talk about them. Just to be sure, ask your child to tell you what the rule is on this trip before you wheel that cart into the store. Keep them busy and focused. Recruit your little helper to find the things on your list. If they are little, ask them to “stop & point” when they find it. Praise them for being your helper as you pull it from the shelf. Hand it to them to put into the basket. As they get bigger, they can help pull items from the produce bin and shelf themselves. Older kids can help with the math and reading nutrition labels, too. Does this have peanuts or dairy? Does that box have enough servings for everyone coming to dinner? Which package is a better buy?

We’ve all rolled our eyes when the chorus of “are we there yet?” begins. This is the time for Eye Spy, 20 Questions and other games come in. Try making up a game. In our family, we would amuse ourselves by reading aloud the three letter combinations on license plates. How would you pronounce HQV? This works on patience and phonics all at once.

If your children have an especially hard time with impulse control, try playing some games. That’s right, instead of punishing them for “grabby paws” behavior, play some games that will help strengthen those emerging skills of self-control. Games like Red Light, Green Light and Simon Says help kids develop careful listening skills and self-control to start or stop themselves. Any game that involves taking turns builds self-control. Just make sure that each player is taking their own turns, and your child isn’t moving pieces for everybody.

With some planning ahead, you have so many more options than a game on your phone. Have fun with it!

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