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My toddler (21 months old), like most, is not a very patient person. For example, when it's dinner time, she wants to sit in her high chair and begins whining and complaining tearfully while her food is being prepared: I'm talking about 2 or 3 minutes to microwave some veggies. When she is done with her veggies and wants her main course, it's the same whining and complaining.

I understand that she is hungry, and the simplest solution is to give her something to eat immediately. However, waiting is an important skill to learn and I don't want to immediately give in. Not only would it teach her that whining is the way to get what she wants, but also it keeps her from understanding that in life you sometimes have to wait. I think I have already messed up by giving in too quickly or somehow reinforcing that she gets fed faster if she whines.

What are some good ways to teach a toddler how to wait? It's not an easy skill, and I'd like to help her learn it.

  • How old is she exactly? Is she like that for other things, like bath time, play time, waiting in her car seat, etc., or is this mostly noticeable at meals? – anongoodnurse Dec 2 '15 at 10:00
  • She is 21 months, it's most noticeable at meals (I also get very grumpy when hungry, it runs in my family I think) but does whine when waiting for a bath, etc. It's especially bad when waiting for food or waiting to get in her backpack to go hiking (her favorite thing!) – Brusselssprout Dec 2 '15 at 10:19
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    A kid that wants to sit up and eat her dinner? How did you accomplish this? And are you up for a trade? :) – corsiKa Dec 2 '15 at 17:20
  • No, @corsiKa, I want that child, too! My son never liked being put in a backpack, so I had to stop hiking for a few years until he was able (and willing!) to walk more than from anywhere to the playground. – user4758 Dec 6 '15 at 14:06
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21 months is young to truly understand waiting, but it's not too young to get a head start. Of course, this is a balancing act: teaching her to wait is a good thing, but too much waiting may make things spiral out of control.

Key to teaching things like this is helping her get a complete understanding of why she is waiting, coupled with an idea of how long. I would show my son the microwave, for example, and point out the food spinning on the turntable; then I'd tell him that when the lights show a zero on the timer, and the microwave beeps, his food is ready! 21 months is old enough to recognize a zero if you show it to her a few times; and watching a turntable on a microwave is fun for kids, at least for a while.

Second, you can show her the uncooked food, and let her eat a bite (if it's safe to do so). My kids have tasted uncooked pasta, frozen almost every vegetable, uncooked corn on the cob - and some of them they even like. But, they also understand why we cook them.

"How long" is often the harder part, really, and unless you're using a microwave you probably don't have an easy way to tell. Setting a timer - particularly if you have an iPad/iPhone/smartphone/etc. with a visual timer (iPhone is a circle that slowly fills, for example) - can help her get a good idea of how long "five minutes" is. Hourglass style timers are also good for that. Also using a timer in other parts of life - how long she can watch TV for, how long until bed, how long to brush her teeth for, etc. - can get her used to different lengths of time and having some idea of how long "five minutes" is. Otherwise, "five minutes" seems like forever - because it's an unknown quantity.

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Think about what you do when you have to wait in line. You read, talk to yourself, look around. Young kid can't read, can't talk to themselves, and there might be nothing interesting to look at. Also, if they don't understand the process you are doing, they'll be wondering why it takes so long.

What I do (for example) during food time is to explain everything like a chef on t.v. Keeps the kid entertained, let them learn new words and how things works. I also like to ask question "hmmm.. the vegetable are cold. Where should I put them to warm them up?" and after a few times he will point at the microwave or name it.

After a while it'll start to be a habit. When you go hiking, you'll narrate what you are doing before putting her in the backpack. This will also teach the toddler about processes. It's boring and repetitive for adults but it's worth it. It shouldn't be a battle of will, but a learning experience.

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We've found that with all whining, providing temporary pleasurable distractions is key. For our 2-year old, so far stuff like "Make sure your rabbits, piggies, babies, whatever dolls are also prepared for dinner, make them sit right in their own chairs, go set the table for them while our food is cooking, etc" works well because she really likes to emulate the caregiver role. Of course these strategies will always need to change as they grow, up until at one point they will fully understand the explanation of how things work.

Some whining will always stay, no matter what you do, it's not like grownups are any different here. Just like you said, just gotta work at a tolerable quantity and fine tuning the everyday towards less.

  • Perhaps it's just my experience, but I have found toys at the table to be a net negative with my girls. – corsiKa Dec 2 '15 at 17:21
  • In general principle, you're correct. The toys don't really come to the real food table here either, but she has own playkitchen where she can arrange stuff. Of course, during the first 18 months we have used all trickery we felt could get the job done - reading her favorite book at the table (bite per page), letting her bring her toy piggy sitting next to her, etc. But her instinct-based desires haven't actually felt unreasonable. Approaching 2 years old, she seems to be trending towards needing less distractions. We'll see how all this holds about during terrible twos and threes. – lkraav Dec 3 '15 at 18:36
  • How about distractions that are dinner related? You could have her help you set the table ("put the fork here, put the spoon here"), do simple food preparation ("sprinkle the cheese on this"), push the button on the microwave. This would not only teach her to be helpful and distract her from her whining, it would also help her feel less helpless and more as if she has some control over dinner coming faster. ("The faster we get this done the sooner we can eat). It might help give her a more positive attitude toward chores. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Dec 3 '15 at 23:35
  • Right on. The mom here has been great at teaching her to participate in making food and since it has always been fun, she has never turned an opportunity down. Literally not once. – lkraav Dec 4 '15 at 10:15
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On the spot, I would acknowledge that I understand ("yes, you are hungry and want to eat") and explain what's going on ("I'm cooking these vegetables for you to eat") and point out the good thing it is worth waiting for ("when the cooking is done, then you can eat the vegetables").

I think that for toddlers (and everyone), it is hard to distinguish "they didn't get my problem" and "solution is being worked on but not ready yet" without good communication. (And let's be honest, parents can be really bad at understanding toddlers sometimes, so I can understand why they like to just repeat everything until they get a proper reaction).

If that situation happens often, I would think about introducing a ritual that fills the time and signals that food is going to arrive soon. Maybe a song that takes long enough for your typical microwave wait time? A song has the benefit that you can keep preparing dinner while singing.

But personally, I like to "just" let my (20 months old) kid help with dinner preparations, which is somewhere between ritual and actual help: "You are hungry and you want to eat. You will eat vegetables so you'll need a plate. Where are the plates? Do you want the red plate or the blue plate? Ok, the red plate. Ah, the blue plate after all. All right, I'll put the red plate back and we'll use the blue plate. Now we need a spoon. Where are the spoon? Yes, there are the spoons. Let me lift you up so you can get a spoon. Ok, get one spoon please. Yes, that are the spoons, take one. Only one spoon. Yes, very good. Now bring the spoon to the table. Yes, the table in the living room. Yes, I'm coming, too. I'm going to bring the plate. See, I put the plate on the table. Can you put the spoon next to it? Very good, now there's plate and a spoon, so we only need the vegetables. Oh, did you hear that, your vegetables are done. Let's fetch them together, you want to come? Oh, you want to go sit in your chair already. Ok, here you go. See, here's your plate and your spoon, and here's your napkin. Can you try to get the napkin on while I fetch your food? I'll be back in a moment with your food."

So instead of waiting for a hard to understand process (such as microwaving food), I would focus on doing other development-appropriate steps that both signal that we're working on achieving the overall goal and that actually help with achieving it.

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