When my nephews demonstrate a developmentally appropriate executive skill (for example: delaying gratification, complying with parental requests, and managing emotions), I like to ask them "How exactly did you do that?"

Certainly, this question indicates the adult's curiosity in the child's experience, and serves to draw their awareness to their specific strategies in these areas. But even better, I get to hear some great answers. You can learn a lot about executive functioning by talking with someone who's in the early stages of mastering those important skills. 

So this past weekend I noticed some real progress in my 8-year-old nephew's capacity for patient waiting (I had not seen him for a few months, which is an eternity in brain development in someone this young!). And I asked him how he has learned to be so patient. After a moment's reflection, he replied, 

"fishing, waiting for the tides, and zoning out!"

Could you write a better prescription for teaching a person to develop patience? Think for a moment about the requirements of those three activities:


Unlike video games which provide almost-certain and immediate reinforcement, fishing is an activity which may or may not prove rewarding, and only after a period of preparation (packing the supplies and driving to the location) and waiting. And waiting. Yep, anglers know patience.

Waiting for the Tide

My nephew and his family moved near the ocean recently and are literally and figuratively eating it up. He and his brother love to see the remarkable changes of the ocean's ebb and flow. They have begun to notice the patterns and rhythms of the tide and have already learned an important life lesson: Nothing you and I do will change those rhythms. There's just the waiting.

 Zoning Out

Now I needed him to explain this one. "What do you mean, zoning out?" I asked him. "Like this!" and he demonstrated the thousand-yard-stare of someone who is lost in thought and oblivious to the passing of time. Just zoning out. In other words, this 8-year-old boy is beginning to master his own cognitive experience: metacognition! He's thinking about thinking. He's making use of the zoned-out state to tolerate periods of waiting and boredom.

So the next time a parent or teacher asks how to support the brain-based skill of patient waiting, I'm pretty sure of my response.

"fishing, waiting for the tides, and zoning out!"

photo:  ash at flickr.com

About the Author

David D. Nowell, Ph.D.

David D. Nowell, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist interested in motivation, focus, and fully-engaged living.

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