Teen Audiences

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.

“Patience is a Virtue”

Virtue of Patience

It can be hard to remember that patience is a virtue in today’s fast-moving, always-on culture. Every day, we are bombarded with advertising, online apps and other media that promises to deliver on a product or service at increasing rates, instilling in us a greater desire for instant gratification of our wants and needs. But is that always a good thing? After all, we’ve all seen the harmful consequences of impatience: a driver runs a red light and gets into an accident; holiday shoppers shove each other on Black Friday and fight over discounted electronics and toys; students drop out of college because getting a degree feels like it’s taking too long.

It’s easy to lose sight of the many benefits of having patience because sometimes the frustration is all too much. However, research has revealed time and time again that the short term discomfort we might experience while we work toward our desired outcome is well worth the wait.

The Marshmallow Study

One of the best (and cutest!) studies on patience was conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel at Stanford University in 1972; it is famously known as the Marshmallow Experiment. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 were asked to sit a table and a marshmallow was placed in front of them. The researchers explained to the children that they had two options: either eat the marshmallow in front of them immediately (small reward) or wait 15 minutes and eat two marshmallows instead of one (large reward). The children were tracked by the researchers, well into adulthood, and the study revealed that those who were able to exercise patience and wait for their larger reward were more successful later on in life. They were also found to be better able to cope with stress and frustration as adolescents, suggesting that developing patience as children can lead to better coping skills later in life. Additional research by Dr. Sarah Schnitker, a psychologist from Baylor University, revealed that increased patience leads to higher achievements, which leads to greater well-being.

Research Findings on Delayed vs Immediate Gratification

What differentiates those who can delay gratification from those who can’t? The answer may lie in our brains. Researchers conducted brain scans of the marshmallow experiment participants after a period of 40 years had passed and the children well into adulthood. They found that the group that could delay gratification had greater activity in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for thinking and planning, especially when it comes to actions that are relevant to our goals. It acts as the “control center” of the brain and is ultimately responsible for what actions we take. This finding suggests that the prefrontal cortex played a large part in helping people prioritize controlling their impulses in order to obtain a desired reward. Conversely, those participants who had trouble delaying gratification showed more activity in the ventral striatum area of the brain; the ventral striatum is part of the reward system of the brain. This finding suggests that those who could not delay gratification were drawn to the possibility of immediate rewards, which had an overriding effect on the rational, thinking parts of their brains.

The Marshmallow Experiment might lead you believe that patience is a trait that is hard-wired into our brains, but Dr. Schnitker’s research suggests that patience is a trait that can be developed. One way to increase patience is by tying a delay of gratification to a larger goal. By thinking about goals, we activate the prefrontal cortex and are therefore more likely to control our impulses. For example, we can teach children and adolescents that waiting to play video games until they’ve finished studying is tied to the goal of doing well in school, which in turn gives them greater choices in terms of occupation when they become adults. According to Dr. Schnitker, spirituality and religion can also help with the development of patience, perhaps because so many spiritual and religious practices emphasize keeping calm in the face of adversity. Religion and spirituality can also provide answers to the question of why humans suffer, which can give us the ability to bear hardships in life.

Therefore,apps or media that have clearly stated goals and can link children and adolescents’ actions to those goals can help children develop patience.

Similarly, creating media that emphasizes the spiritual, rather than the mundane, aspects of human existence can also help children and adolescents look towards something higher instead of becoming frustrated by the small annoyances in life.

Other methods of developing patience are demonstrated by the techniques that the researchers used in carrying out the marshmallow study. Recall that the experimenters took the children into a room and placed a marshmallow in front of them, then left the room. The children who were successful in not eating the marshmallow exhibited a variety of behaviors in order to avoid temptation: They would "cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can't see the tray, others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal.” In other words, the children distracted themselves in order to avoid temptation.

This suggests that techniques that promote distraction – of not always focusing on what’s in front of us – can help develop patience.

It’s also important to have multiple goals or objectives in life, so that we do not grow frustrated if we are not making progress in one area.

Suggestions for developing patience in children and adolescents using media:

  • Develop apps or games with multiple objectives and ways to succeed

  • Develop apps or games that require a level of patience in order to advance to the next level

  • Create media that emphasizes the spiritual aspects of life

  • Show examples of people who have overcome suffering through perseverance, such as Ghandi or Nelson Mandela

  • Create media that ties short-term objectives to long-term goals

Wenwen Ni is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at UCLA. She is passionate about using psychological research to improve well-being.


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.