Waiting is the Hardest Part! Why teaching kids to wait is one of the best gifts you can give them!


You can have that later!

Don't Touch That!!

Wait Just A Minute Please!

                 All of these these are phrases we use with our kids throughout the day EVERY day!  

Sometimes they are effective and sometimes they fall flat but, by consistently following through on teaching kids to STOP and WAIT you are doing something AMAZING to their brains that will create a stronger, more resilient, and (ultimately) happier person as they grow into adolescence and adulthood.  

The skill of stopping and waiting to respond, in order to get something that you want, is one of the many executive functioning skills that we develop as we grow called…Response Inhibition.  Response Inhibition is basically the resist the urge to say or do something when you want to do it.  Most skills in the Executive functioning category of our brain (located in the Frontal Lobes) don’t fully evolve until our late twenties but, Response Inhibition is something that we can see emerging from a rudimentary level, very early (within the first year of life).  This is when babies learn to stop and respond when they reach or stop and look at things.  As they move into the early preschool years and learn language, they begin to use language to reinforce this concept.  When you hear toddlers playing and they play with others using phrases like “no, don’t do that” or practice their “No” language, they are practicing these skills.  When you ask them to wait for their dessert until after dinner, you are using an example of reinforcing the STOP and WAIT behavior to delay gratification.  The more consistent you are with this skill the stronger the Response Inhibition skills become.  

In a famous test using marshmallows to measure preschool children’s delayed gratification,  a marshmallow (or some other desirable treat) was placed in front of a child, and the child was told they could get a second treat if they just resisted temptation for 15 minutes. If they gave in to that temptation of sugar, they only got the one marshmallow BUT if they waited they got more.  Results over the years have been mixed with whether or not this can predict long-term success in life however, it does build a strong foundation for the other elements of Executive functions that are needed to be a productive learner and in social situations.  Being able to inhibit your responses is crucial in making decisions about your safety, long-term consequences, and to balance consequences in social situations.  By teaching children how to master this skills you are building a foundation for other executive functioning skills that develop later that will be crucial for problem solving, learning, and independence.  

To build response inhibition skills early on you want to make sure you are continuing to make it fun and exciting.  Computer games are not necessarily the best choice as your modeling and feedback of the skill is one of the most important parts.  Some of the old school games that we grew up with are the best examples of teaching the Stop and Wait skills.   Games like:

Simon Says

Mother, May I?

Red Light, Green Light

These are all great examples of introducing and practicing the skill of Stop and Wait.  In each of these games you are creating a fun way for your child to listen and respond to the tasks but in order to keep playing you need to stop a behavior in its tracks AND by playing with you it becomes a desired experience that also routes those memories into the fold.  There has been some great research to support emotions and memory so if they link these games/skills with a happy experience with you there is a larger chance the information will solidify and be accessible in the future.

Sesame Street realized the importance of this skill a few years ago and devoted time to addressing it with their young viewers and families.  They consulted with the psychologist that initially conducted the marshmallow test, Walter Mischel, PhD and found a way to help the one character with the biggest problem with Stopping and Waiting….


The result was not only some wonderful children’s programming but my favorite Sesame Street Video EVER which you will find here 🙂

Some of the strategies the Sesame Street team included when teaching kids about self regulation included:

Self-Talk - Teaching kids about using their inner voice to “coach” themselves through an experience to stop and wait.  

Using Self-Distraction - Helping children understand that they can use tools to distract themselves while they wait that include things like: playing with a fidget toy, sitting on their hands, thinking of a happy place/person/experience, counting aloud, or making up a song to pass the time.

Stoplight Strategy: The stoplight strategy may help your child pause and ponder before acting on a stressful situation. It consists of three steps:

  1. Stop (red light): Take a long, deep breath, say the problem, and how you feel.
  2. Make a plan (yellow light): Asking, “What could I do? How could I make these solutions work? Which of these solutions are best?”
  3. Go (green light): Try your best idea. Reflect on what happened. Try another idea if needed.

I will leave you with ONE last tip…  One of the best examples of a lack of Response Inhibition (along with the most annoying) is a behavior that every parent has experienced portrayed by our friends from The Family Guy

This is a parental rite of passage that we have all gone through over…and over…and over again.  Here is a little trick that I learned to help teach your little one to wait while you are talking or doing something else.  After explaining to your child (for the 100th time) that when you are talking or in the middle of something it is not always possible to respond to them immediately you can introduce the touch and response method.  An example of what it looks like is below - just don't mind the mess - I do have 4 kids after all 🙂

When your child needs your attention, they approach you and place their hand on your shoulder (or hand if they are not tall enough).  You immediately respond by placing your hand over theirs to let them know you have recognized that they are there and need your attention.  The expected response from your child is to wait quietly until you turn your attention toward them and ask what they need.  Here is a pro tip with this strategy…. When you first start make sure you try to wrap up your conversation within 10-20 seconds to give more immediately feedback and show them the the strategy works.  As they use it more and more you can increase the time to respond in case you need it.  Also - don’t be afraid to let them know how proud you are of them for waiting!