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Tips for Cultivating Patience

In every handful of kids, there's one who's "a little wild"  -- likely to dart out into the street after a ball, hit a playmate when things don't go his way, or grab the first piece of birthday cake. While a toddler who acts on impulse can be difficult to discipline and keep safe, once a child reaches first grade, he's likely to run into a cycle of problems at school. The trouble his grabby or disruptive behavior creates with peers and teachers may impede his ability to make friends and to learn, says Robert Epstein, Ph.D., director emeritus of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, in MA.

Like most behavioral traits, a need for instant gratification appears to be partly genetic  -- some people just can't wait  -- and partly learned: How patient a child's parents are, and what he sees on TV and at school, for instance, figure in. So does gender: Though boys and girls are equally impulsive at age 3, by 7 girls often begin to grow out of the tendency, but boys become increasingly impetuous.

Fortunately, grade-schoolers are well-equipped physically and cognitively to learn to control themselves. To help a child think before he acts:

Discuss coming attractions. Consider which scenarios usually create problems for your child. Restaurant dinners? Playdates? About an hour before such an event, discuss his behavior with him, help him anticipate challenging situations, and talk over ways to deal with them: "Your cousin Terry is coming over tonight. You know that you usually grab markers out of her hand while she's coloring. What can we do to make sure that doesn't happen?" One option: Set a timer. After she's had a particular marker for a certain number of minutes, he's allowed to use it.

Encourage delayed gratification. Epstein suggests the "candy in your pocket" technique: Give your child a single serving of a favorite (nonchocolate) candy on Monday and tell her to carry it around with her  -- without eating any of it  -- until Friday. She not only gets to enjoy the candy on Friday but also collects an additional reward for her patience. Praise her for her efforts as well.

Give him breathing lessons. To help a child gain a sense of control, teach him to take a cleansing breath. "It works magic, both in the midst of difficulties and in anticipation," says Epstein. Show him how to draw in his breath and count to five, then blow out the breath very slowly.

Review the case. When his impulsiveness gets him into trouble, wait until he's calm, then talk about what happened and try to remedy the situation. For instance, if he tears open and reads a letter addressed to his sister, have him apologize. Describe how things might have gone differently if he'd acted more thoughtfully.

Slow down. Give him enough time to do things in an unhurried manner. Then follow suit: When your impulsive child grabs what he wants without asking, take a deep breath, speak in a tranquil tone of voice, and show him what it means to be prudent.