Helping Kids Develop a Capacity to Wait

Why it's getting more difficult and what you can do
Shutterstock 577849366
Image courtesy of Niwat Singsamarn/

The availability of mobile devices makes downtime and periods of waiting idly a thing of the past for many adults and children alike. What does this mean for the developing minds of young children?

Technology has undoubtedly changed our lives and has made accessing information much easier and more convenient. Information comes in many forms. We can view photos on a digital camera or phone immediately after taking them, search browsers for images of just about anything in seconds, and verify facts and data after a quick look online. Having instant access to information in this way eliminates many opportunities for children and adults to imagine, ponder, wonder and simply wait. 


Waiting and the Capacity to Imagine

By removing the gap of waiting (or wondering) time, children’s minds don’t have the opportunity to imagine. Years ago, when we couldn’t see photographs right after taking them, for example, our minds had to create the images themselves as we imagined how our pictures would turn out. Similarly, regarding data, without the means to access answers instantaneously, we were left with a period of time in which our minds could imagine the possibilities. These small exercises of waiting and imagining strengthen the mind and aid in the development of skills needed for higher thinking, reasoning and problem-solving. Without these experiences, children’s capacities to imagine and their ability to cope with delayed gratification are impacted. This makes waiting in general a more challenging task, which can lead to a lower frustration tolerance.


What Can You Do?

While the internet is a great tool for accessing data, you can place limits on children’s use of it as a resource for finding answers. Help your child ponder the possibilities and potential answers, then seek answers together by taking your time to look through a book or visit a library. Doing so will help your child become a more active thinker, develop reasoning and problem-solving skills and cope with “waiting” feelings — all necessary skills for tackling problems and finding solutions.

Take, for instance, a child’s question about the speed of the fastest land animal — the cheetah. A quick internet search will give you the answer to the question, “What is the world’s fastest land animal?” in about a tenth of a second, giving little room for wondering or asking other pertinent questions. Seeking the answer in a book by flipping through the pages to find the desired information, however, can lead to other related facts and information. “Where do cheetahs live?” “Why are they so fast?” “What is the world’s second- fastest land animal?”

Other steps you can take to delay gratification include waiting after taking pictures during an outing until later in the day or, on a different day, going through them together and reflecting on the experience. This can help your child stay in the moment of the experience and use his or her memory to relive it at a later time. Comments that can help activate your child’s memories, open up conversations and encourage meaningful reflective experiences could be, for example, “Let’s look at our museum pictures from last week. Do you remember what your favorite part was?” or “Remember our picnic at the park? We had so much fun. Let’s look at the pictures together.” 

These and other experiences that encourage waiting will build up your child’s capacity to imagine and cope with frustration when he or she can’t immediately find an answer. In the process, you and your child will likely enjoy rewarding experiences of coming across new related information that you wouldn’t have known was of interest to your child until you stumbled upon it together.


The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit to learn more.

Categories: Development, Family, Solutions