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Why won't my kids hurry up? They don't understand time yet.

Updated: Jul 9, 2022

Do you constantly feel like you are telling your kids to hurry up? They don't want to finish breakfast and comb their hair to go to school. They don't want to leave the park. They insist on putting their shoes on themselves when you are already late. And then you lose it. You start telling them that you are running late, and that they need to hurry up.

I had one of those moments about a month ago with my toddler. I had an early work meeting, and she absolutely would not let me get her ready and get into the car.

I started screaming at her that I needed to go to work. That if I didn't get to work, I was going to lose my job, and we were going to be living out in the street.

She started crying. Her dad picked up and put her into the car, still crying.

Then, I got to my meeting about 5 minutes early, and sat there feeling like a terrible person. I didn't need to hurry her along quite so much. I could have soothed her feelings before moving on.

Not my finest half an hour. But it taught me something.

It's ok to slow down for your kids.

Kids Don't Understand Time.

Picture of a lot of clocks in a pile.
What time is it?

No really. They don't understand it at all.

Yesterday, my toddler was walking around with a watch on and telling her older sister, "It's almost past my bedtime."

Big sister asked her, "When is your bedtime?"

Little sister answered, "When the movie is over."

Little kids don't know when it is 4pm, 4am, or that you need to be at work at 8am, or that the doctor will bill you extra if you are 15 minutes late, and probably make you schedule a new appointment on top of it. As a mom, this can be extremely frustrating, especially if you are running late, or trying to get to an appointment on time.

Sometimes my little one struggles with getting ready in the morning, and wants to pick a different outfit over and over, finish watching Scooby Doo, or eat three different things for breakfast. Eventually, we start to run out of time and I have to tell her to hurry up, or that we will have to do whatever she has in mind after daycare.

As you may be very familiar with, trying to get a toddler to do anything they don't want to do, especially in a hurry, can often lead to a meltdown. Then, trying to calm the meltdown takes even longer.

For my own peace of mind and sanity, I have started getting up earlier than what I think I will need. Because the time it actually takes to do something is miniscule, but taking the time to let your toddler do what they want to do and avoid a meltdown is about three times longer. It may make you cringe at the beginning, but leaving extra time to get ready for any outing will actually help you be a calmer mom, with happier kids, in the long run.

Little kids don't waste time because they are trying to frustrate you, it has to do with their brain development, and the fact that they lack the concept of time that we as adults tend to take for granted.

Understanding Time as Toddlers and Preschoolers.

Mom and little boy looking at calendar.
Learning before and after.

Toddlers and preschoolers are just beginning to understand time in a general sort of way, like understanding the difference between morning and night, or sequences of events.

As their brains develop, toddlers begin to understand that we wake up in the morning, and go to bed at night. We can teach them that the sun comes out in the morning, and that it is dark out at night. They begin to understand the concept that we go to sleep when it is dark out.

Once toddlers begin to understand the difference between day and night, the can also begin to learn about basic time concepts, like before and after.

You can begin to tell them things like, "We will eat lunch after we go to the store." Or, "We need to put on your shoes before you go to daycare."

Once toddlers and preschoolers begin to understand concepts like before and after, they can also begin to understand predictable routines. If you do the same things with them every day, they will start to remember sequences of events.

My daughter is 4 now, and starting to remember her schedule at daycare. She knows that after they eat breakfast, then they go outside, and then do circle time, and centers.

Also, my daughter would get up every day and ask us if it is daycare day, or stay at home day. So, we started to teach her the days of the week to help her understand that there is a schedule each week. Monday through Friday she goes to daycare, and Saturday and Sunday she stays home.

To help her learn the days of the week, we wrote all the days of the week on her chalk board, and she recites them each day. She is starting to be able to recognize them, and has fun trying to teach them back to me, since it's an activity she started with her dad.

Little girl sitting with chalk board, which has days of the week
Learning the Days of the Week

Waiting for Kids Teaches Parents Patience.

Yes, at times, waiting for our kids to be ready for an outing can try our patience. Going back to the story from earlier, and my toddler meltdown when I had a meeting, I know it was a situation I handled badly. Instead of waiting for her to feel ready on her own, I yelled at her that I needed to go to work, and took her into the car still crying before I went to my meeting.

When I arrived early and spent that five minutes waiting in the car for the meeting, I had time to think over the situation and to assess what I should have done differently. I realized that I actually did have time to calm her down, had I tried harder to do so. I knew I needed to change my own reactions, as well as my daughter's handling of the situation.

In order to find patience within myself, I found empathy for my child.

Intellectually I know that a toddler doesn't have the capacity to understand the consequences to my job if I was late for a meeting. She doesn't understand that in the corporate world, time stops for no one. She has no idea what would happen if I got disciplined at work, or that if I am late too many times I could lose my job. So I took a step back from my own fearful reaction to the situation and saw that I in fact did have enough time to stop and honor her feelings.

Little children are just learning about the world, and they model the behaviors that they see from us. There are many things in this big world that they don't understand, and they have a lack of control over their own lives. Children are always being told what to do, in this case being told to "hurry up." She likely pushed back and threw a tantrum in order to gain some type of control over the situation.

Understanding our children's feelings, being gentle and kind with them can help us as parents learn empathy. When we feel empathy for another person and see things from their perspective, it is easier for us to be patient, instead of angry. Taking a few minutes to honor their feelings can make all the difference between a happy child (and a happy mom!) and a toddler in full meltdown mode.

The more patient we can be with our children, the more we are able to turn any situation into a teachable moment instead of a fight.

When we, as parents, are better able to control our emotions, we are also better able to help our kids cope with their emotions. It's a two way street. And we can get there by using empathy much better than we can using anger. When we get angry with our kids for making us late, a concept that they don't understand, then we are just teaching them that yelling is an OK way to get what you want in life. Not really the lesson we had in mind to instill.

When Do Kids Learn to Understand Time?

hand holding a pocket watch.
Learning to tell time takes practice

Not to fret mommas, kids do eventually learn to understand the concept of time, just like we do as adults. It just takes.... time.

My oldest is a teen now, and all her young life I had to tell her to hurry up to get ready for school. I taught her that lateness is to be avoided, as a sign of rudeness and disrespect to other people that might be waiting for us.

Recently she had an issue with a teacher not returning a paper to her with enough time to study for the next test. It was funny and somewhat gratifying to hear her parrot back some of the same things I had been saying to her for years, about people needing to prioritize their time better.

The more often you repeat a lesson for your kids, the better they learn.

According to Math Genie, "There are a few key ages where you should teach your child about time -- but remember this is an incremental process:

  • Age 5-6: Children should be able to read the hour and half hour markers on an analog clock, and draw the corresponding times as well.

  • Age 6-7: Children should know the number of minutes in an hour and the number of hours in a day. Children should be able to tell / draw time in five minute increments, Children should be able to comprehend quarter to / quarter past concepts

  • Ages 7-8: Children should be able to read an analog clock, using 12 hour clocks, 24 hour clocks, and Roman Numerals (I-XII). Children should be able to compare time (by hours, minutes, and even seconds). Children should be comfortable using time-specific vocabulary (o’clock, a.m./p.m., morning, afternoon, noon and midnight)."

According to this list, you can see that kids don't really start to understand time until they are about 5 years old, and will have a better grasp by the time they are 8 years old.

Since the understanding of time has to do with a child's brain development, clearly a child (like my 4 year old) who can only count to ten doesn't have enough of a grasp of the math concepts yet to tell time.

A child needs to be able to count to 60 to understand how many seconds are in a minute, and how many minutes in an hour. Also, having a time system that is based on 60 and 24, in itself isn't an easy concept to grasp. It is built on complicated mathematical systems that follow the rotation of the earth around the sun. Not super easy to understand either.

Understanding the mathematical and scientific knowledge needed to understand time requires quite a bit of learning on the child's part. Teaching a child everything they need to know can seem a daunting task, which of course is why children go to school! That way, they can learn from specialized professionals, as well as from us. Teaching kids math and science isn't easy.

Boy with school books studying.
Studying math and science takes patience.

So for now, until our little ones learn to tell time the way we as adults do intuitively, it is up to us to learn patience.

Plan Ahead.

Planning ahead for our important appointments, or even a normal day, can really help us get where we need to go even if our children are oblivious.

Typically, I tend to calendar things a lot. I also make sure to build an extra 10-15 minutes (if not more!) into my schedule when I know that I need to take my toddler somewhere. That way, I have time to deal with little things that may come up along the way. If she wants to change her outfit, find the perfect toy to take with her, or stop to look at a flower, we have time to do that.

In a lot of ways, it is our own time management skills that we need to rely on when it comes to getting kids ready for an outing. Even if I have to get up earlier than I would like to make things run smoothly, I would rather do that than listen to a toddler meltdown that could take even longer.

For more about time management, and creating a morning routine, you can check out some of my other blog posts on this topic.

If you have questions on teaching your kids about time, learning patience, or time management, let me know in the comments! Also, let me know if there are any time saving hacks that you would like to share with other mommas who may be struggling with the same issues! If this article resonates with you, give it a share too!

Why won't my kids hurry up?  They don't understand time yet.
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