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The Surprising Power of Waiting

By James D. MacDonald

In our concern for helping a child communicate, many of us often overstimulate the child. A father, teaching a child to build a bridge, might stack all the blocks at once. The mother, wanting her child to talk, may give her a constant stream of words such as "What did you do in school; was Sally there; did she pick you as a partner again; you like her don't you?" Both examples show a concerned parent doing too much without waiting for the child to do his part. When we simply look at how we communicate with a child without waiting, we see one major reason why our children may not communicate more. For children with delays, this situation can be very dangerous to their development. Not enough waiting can make us believe the child knows much less than he does and it can teach him to be a passive learner with few chances to communicate what he does know.

Thin about it.. When you say something to your child, what do you usually do next? Many of us immediately say or do something again and again without waiting for the child to take a turn. Then what happens? The child leaves or stops paying attnetion. Don't you do the same when someone keeps talking and gives you no time to say anything?

Waiting is a tricky thing to think about and to remember, because it is like thinking about nothing. But, in our work with parents, teachers and therapists, we find waiting one of the most powerful ways to help a child communicate. Waiting is also a good way to get contact with any child who may seem isolated from you.

It may seem to obvious to say, but it takes time to communicate, either with or without words. Children with developmental delays or other natural interferences to learning usually need more time to communicate than others. Many parents and others tell us and show us that waiting for their child to communicate is difficult, almost impossible, at first. They genuinely believe that helping a child communicate requires a lot of stimlulation, such as repeating a question over and over and "bathing" the child with language. They do not realize how necessary it is to wait and give a child a quiet chance to do something. Many adults do not seem to see that when they do all the playing and talking, they are actually preventing the child from communicating and learning to talk. Without having regular partners who wait, a child may become passive and miss the many natural opportunities to communicate.

James D. MacDonald has been a Clinician and researcher with children with language disorders since 1968. He was Professor of Speech/Language Pathology and Director of the Parent-Child Communication Clinic at the Nisonger Center, Ohio State University for five years. He has directed the Communicating Partners Center in Columbus, Ohio since 1995. Dr. MacDonald's website is

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