The Chance to Wait

Wait for It Illustration by Jennifer Miller

I grew up with six brothers. That’s how I learned to dance – waiting for the bathroom.

– Bob Hope

“Are we there yet?” This is the common refrain from the backseat on the long road trip to Grammy’s house. We “moo” at the cows. We examine the red barns. We talk about the funny words on signs like “Woussickitt.” My smart phone, e-reader and laptop are all safely packed away. We don’t need them. We are practicing waiting.

First, you may ask, who cares and why is waiting so important? Even the word “waiting” may strike an annoying chord within you because it involves patience and self-control. But it’s worth the effort because it can allow for reflection and deeper, more creative thinking and support the delaying of gratification in order to pursue higher goals. It can promote family connectedness and even impact academic achievement.

Educators have been using wait time since the 1970s to prompt better listening, thinking and involvement with questions in the classroom. A teacher’s typical response time to a student’s comment is one second. But if teachers ask a question and allow more wait time, student’s responses begin to evolve with the use of logic and higher level thinking processes. Also students in classrooms with shorter wait times were found to be more restless than ones with longer ones.1 Though it may seem counterintuitive, slowing the pace and allowing empty space creates opportunities for children’s minds to focus.

As with any learned skill, children need practice. They will have limited ability at first. Set a timer and create a “wait challenge.” The reward only need be the accomplishment of waiting for the time you allot. At a time when your children normally watch a video, you may say, “Let’s set the timer for one minute and see if we can wait that long before we watch television.” The true test is if you can wait alongside your children without engaging with your phone or other device. That modeling will be necessary if you ask them to do it. The following are additional examples of how waiting may fit into your busy family life.

After School Catch Up
“How was your day at school?” you ask genuinely hoping for something, anything to give you a clue about his experience. When a sliver of silence creeps in, you continue “What did you do? Did you have gym last period? How’d that go?” Your tired boy responds, “Fine.” And then, you move on to the next activity. But what if you had let the first question hang in the air and patiently waited? Maybe he will have time to remember that he played an exhilarating game of huggie monster tag at recess.

Running Errands
“I just know he’s going to have a melt-down right in the middle of the Kohl’s return line. It’s just easier to give him my iPhone and let him play a game.” You may have similar thoughts as you try to accomplish tasks with children in tow. And yes, he may have a melt down the first time you don’t provide entertainment. You may even have to leave the store. But be consistent, and he will accept that waiting is to be expected.

Kids’ Requests
The next time you hear, “Mooooooom, I need a snack!” from a room away while you are up to your elbows in dish soap, you may want to let your child know that you’ll help him when you are finished. Each person in a family has needs which should be respected. Dropping everything is not necessary in order to be a responsive parent and in fact, may add to your own feelings of resentment over time.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for you, or any of us who require caffeine to get through the day with children, will be the self-discipline to model waiting and become a regular practitioner. If you succeed, the payoff will be great. It will come when you least expect it. That moment when your car tags are about to expire and you view the epically long line at the BMV, you and your children will be ready. They will know waiting is a part of “the way things are.”

Like a pencil in a backpack, your children will bring the skill of waiting to school with them. It will extend their ability to focus. And they will bring their best selves to academic problems since they won’t need constant entertainment to remain stimulated. If we offer children the chance to wait, the space to focus and think for themselves, we offer them the chance to develop a critical tool for success. They will be prepared to be thoughtful and contributing individuals.


Rowe, M.B. (1986). Wait time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education. Sage Publications: 37; 43.

2 Comments on “The Chance to Wait”

  1. Pingback: Elements of a Confident Kid… Skilled Communicator | confident parents confident kids

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