A Parents' Primer on Patience


Learning to Cultivate Patience

Parenthood provides a unique opportunity to examine the real meaning of patience. When I asked my 7-year-old why he seemed to enjoy stretching my patience to the absolute limits, he simply shrugged his shoulders. “It’s a kid thing,” he says matter-of factly. Bottom line interpretation: Parenting requires patience. And how and why you as a parent choose to develop patience is entirely up to you.

While the cliché “patience is a virtue” rings true, it tends to give the impression that this is an innate quality with which only a few lucky mortals are born. Realistically though, patience is simply a parenting skill like any other. Certainly there are parents who seem better equipped to display patience in generous amounts, but “with effort and experience, anyone can lengthen his or her emotional fuse…” says Dr. Ray Gaurendi in his book Back to the Family. This doesn’t imply that patience is something that can be perfected and then forgotten about. “Patience is an ideal to strive for. It is not a day-to-day reality,” says Dr. Gaurendi. “If you accept that fact, you will be less demanding of yourself and your kids. Emotions are deeply wired into human beings, and most deeply wired into parents. The most laid-back of us can be pushed to rise up angrily. That is the nature of parenthood. More than that, it’s the nature of excellent parenthood.”

So, the first step towards mastering this skill is to have patience with yourself. Let yourself off the hook. The dynamics of living in a family unit are such that there will always be a variety of moods, emotions, and behaviors at work at any one time—and certainly some of these combinations will be more volatile than others.

When my 3-year-old chooses dressing herself for preschool as her claim to independence for the day, and I’ve had a good night’s sleep and no deadlines approaching, I smugly think that I’ve got this patience skill under wraps. Let her try it when my six-month-old has had me up three times during the night, we’ve all overslept as a result, my early-morning appointment scheduled weeks ago is looming, and her patient mother is suddenly replaced by what I’m sure a toddler can only interpret as a raving lunatic.

Luckily for our children, adulthood generally results in a measure of maturity. “Don’t raise your voice, and talk to [your kids] calmly, no matter what the situation,” says Clint, father of three youngsters. “This is something that Sheri and I have been trying hard to do in the past few months. We found there was too much yelling going on in our house, and as a result of the constant bombardment of noise, kids, phones, etc., our patience was very short. Although not directly being patient, it does seem to make a much calmer and more sane household, and therefore it is much easier to keep your patience.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the Massachusetts Medical Center and coauthor of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, suggests that by practicing mindfulness—the art of bringing our full attention to bear on the moment at hand—we can’t help but cultivate patience. “If you take care of the present moment, then you’re more likely to let future moments unfold without pushing through to them,” he says. Resolving to make the most of your time with your children, no matter what the circumstances, is guaranteed to improve patience. Fretting about the unwashed dishes or piles of paperwork on your desk won’t get the tasks achieved no matter how impatient you get as your child laboriously rehearses her assignment for school the next day. In fact, the only guaranteed way to make the time go quicker is to enjoy it!

As much as it may seem that way on occasion, children seldom test an adult’s patience intentionally. If your children seem to, you need to ask yourself why. As writer Susan Spicer points out in her article “The Patient Parent,” “Sometimes choosing patience isn’t a matter so much of defusing frustration or anger. Rather, it’s choosing to pay attention to our kids because we want them to know we value their interests and concerns.” Take a few minutes to listen to your son’s vivid description of the latest action toy or your daughter’s lengthy explanation of why she colored the sky purple instead of blue. If you do have to interrupt, then explain why and suggest returning to the conversation at a later stage.