Cultivating Patience

Cultivating Patience

“Patience is a virtue, virtue is a grace. Both put together make a very pretty face.”

As a young child, I loved this rhyme and eagerly embraced the virtue of patience because I honestly believed it held the promise of a prettier face.  I figured that patience was a small price to pay for a better looking nose. Now as an adult, I recognize more clearly the merits of patience…while sadly accepting that none of them involve the reconstruction of my somewhat flawed nose.  But I digress.

Dr. Sarah Schnitker, an expert on patience, defines it as “the propensity to wait calmly in the face of frustration or adversity.” She identifies three types of situations in which patience can be displayed: Daily Hassles (e.g., waiting in a long line, traffic jams); Long-Term Goals and Life Hardship (e.g., getting a job, coping with a serious illness); and Interpersonal (e.g., dealing with a difficult person).

We are regularly faced with such situations, and the research shows that the more we respond to them with patience, the better off we are. Compared to impatient individuals, those who display patience tend to have better mental health, lower levels of depression, and are more successful at reaching long-term goals. Patience leads to better social interactions, better physical health, and greater satisfaction. Patience is clearly an important and necessary skill for children to develop.  

But the reality is that today’s youth are impatient, and they know it. In one survey of adolescents and young adults, 80% said they expect to receive a quick reply when they send an email, and express annoyance when this doesn’t happen.  When presented with the statement, “I have little patience and I can’t stand waiting for things,” the majority agreed.

To understand why, one need only consider the technologically advanced society many of today’s youth have known their whole lives. It is a society where speed and immediacy are valued and rewarded; where information, entertainment and communication are just a click away.  Retailers offer same day delivery. Smartphone apps eliminate the wait for a taxi, a Starbucks coffee, even a date. Movies and TV shows stream in seconds. Books download instantly. There’s fast food, high-speed internet, instant messaging…the list goes on. As a society, we seem to place less emphasis on patience and more on speed and instant gratification. In fact, one survey actually found that the use of the word “patience” declined by 48% in American books over the 20th century.  According to Dr. Schnitker, “technology is eroding our patience.”

Which begs the question: Are there ways in which technology and media can actually promote it?

Show patience in action: As with any character virtue, patience can be modeled by the onscreen characters viewers most readily connect with and aim to emulate, commonly those seen as intelligent and successful.  Having such characters display patience across a variety of situations is a good first step towards inspiring young viewers to do the same.

We also know that viewers relate best to same-sex media characters, stressing the need for content creators to ensure that patience is displayed and modeled equally by both male and female characters.  This is especially important in light of research suggesting that males are more impatient than females.

Focus on Emotion Regulation:  Given that the hallmark of patience is the ability to remain calm in frustrating situations, efforts to help kids regulate their emotions will go a long way in helping them develop patience.  Dr. Schnitker used this knowledge to provide patience training for adolescents, and discovered the importance of having participants work through the stages of emotion regulation in a step-by-step manner. Specifically, having them identify:

a) what they are feeling;

b) why the situation triggered those feelings;

c) strategies to calm themselves (e.g., meditation);

d) ways to reframe the situation (e.g., this traffic jam gives me more time to listen to music I love).

Creating media properties that feature these steps, and specifically target the three types of patience described earlier, will help provide kids with the practice and tools they need to display patience when emotionally triggered in their everyday lives. This could be accomplished through apps where kids put themselves in given situations and work through the steps, or through media properties with storylines where fictional characters do the same.

Emphasize the value of patience: Too often, kids today believe that patience means inactivity or laziness, expressing concern that if they’re patient, they won’t get anything done. But that’s not what the research shows. Dr. Schnitker found that adolescents who patiently pursued their goals actually exerted more effort toward attaining them, and were more satisfied in their goal pursuits.  Being patient and calm allowed the adolescents to more effectively engage in working toward their goals.

This is the message that media can help kids realize: Patience isn’t about disengaging. On the contrary, patience is about active and calm engagement while waiting to achieve the end goal.  That’s what leads to success.

Video Games

Knowing little about video games myself, I turned to my son (our resident expert) to better understand if and how video games could instill patience in those who play them. He offered up some thoughts on how patience was required and reinforced through gameplay. Here’s what I learned:

The virtual worlds of many games today are so realistic, players feel as if they are actually living the experience in real time. For instance, to get from point A to point B, players are required to physically travel there. And the greater the distance, the longer the journey. Given that the more valuable and desirable items are typically placed furthest away, getting to them takes a long time…a situation that nicely mirrors real life. This gameplay feature basically rewards players for putting in time and effort in pursuit of something desirable, which is what patience for long-term goals is all about.

In games where you level up, there is usually a main story as well as side quests or missions along the way. If players are impatient, and complete the main story too quickly, the game ends. Players come to learn that a better, more satisfying strategy is to do a bit of the main story as well as some side quests, back and forth, so that they have a richer experience. Also by the time they do get to the end, their ability to successfully complete the main story is dependent on the skills they gained along the way (through the various side quests and missions.) Once again, players are rewarded for displaying patience.

Grinding is also an interesting aspect of gameplay. This is when players perform a repetitive, often boring, action in order to gain power or experience that will benefit them in the next stage of the game. Grinding effectively corresponds to real life situations and the patience required to attain long-term goals. In fact, when I went to a gaming forum discussing the pros and cons of grinding (apparently some gamers like it, others don’t), I came across this one entry that sums it up well: “For sure, grinding requires patience, but it allows someone who’s willing to put in the time an eventual 100% chance of success.”  Nice!

Patience is a quiet virtue that can easily be overlooked in today’s busy, hurried, noisy world.  That’s why media efforts to highlight its value, and to help today’s youth cultivate it within themselves, are so relevant and necessary.

Dr. Lynn Oldershaw is a developmental psychologist who has worked for the past 18 years in children’s media, first as an Executive in Charge of Production for Programming at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and currently as a children’s media content consultant for production companies in Canada, the US, and Europe.

Prior to working in children’s programming, Dr. Oldershaw was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario, and was the Research Director of CAMH’s Child Psychiatry Program in Toronto.   Her research and clinical work focused on the factors that contribute to the social, emotional and intellectual development of children.

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.