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.

Setting an Example

Modern parents have many balls to juggle, and the way you choose to manage your time will directly influence the amount of patience you are able to display. “When you lose patience, in all likelihood it’s because you’re feeling thwarted; that feeling is unpleasant and the danger is you’re carried away by it,” says Kabat-Zinn. If being a patient parent is a priority for you, then reassessing your daily commitments may be necessary. Attitude is a vital ingredient to developing patience. “I think that patience is learned,” says mom Shan Farquharson. “My husband Kevin tends to look at the situation, walk away, think about it, and then once he has looked at it from every angle, smiles, gives his input, and leaves it at that—subject closed. Should the same thing come up in the next couple of days, he reacts the same way.”

Consider the statement by school psychologist and parent educator Sal Severe in his book How To Behave So Your Children Will, Too!, “Our economy has created financial tension in families. Parents come home stressed. Their fuse is short. The rising divorce rate affects all of our children. Today, there are schools where four out of five children have experienced divorce. Single parenting is stressful,” he says.

Less stress is a sure antidote for increased patience. And if you need to discipline your child, even scheduling that can be an effective solution. “Set aside time when you can calmly let your child know how you feel. Leave accusations aside and talk about your feelings as opposed to talking about him being a slob,” says Joan Parent, a parent counselor for King’s County Child Welfare Agency in Nova Scotia.

Understanding Expectations

Another point pertinent to patience is the fact that our expectations may exceed what our children are actually capable of. “A toddler in an itchy tux at a family wedding isn’t going to be able to sit through the after-dinner speeches happily,” says Gary Walters, a professor emeritus in the psychology department at the University of Toronto. “And if you expect him to, you end up in a vicious circle of misery. You’ve set yourself up for losing your patience. Your kid loses it, and people look at you. That kind of public pressure is awful,” he says. Develop the habit of devising back-up plans for any potentially explosive situations, and then, just as importantly, allow yourself to use them!

Teaching Your Children Patience

In a world where instant gratification is the order of the day, it is never too early to help your child develop the art of patience. Dr. Marilyn Heins offers the following suggestions:

  • Playing board games helps children learn to wait their turn.
  • Reading longer books to your child from about age 5 will teach him to wait for the next installment.
  • Baking or planting flowers or vegetables teaches patience—your child has to wait for the time between the task and the payoff to pass.
  • Saving for a big purchase like a bike helps teach patience as well as the value of money.
  • Nature helps to teach patience. Let your child watch the sun come up or sit quietly in the woods and wait for a deer to come by.

And then, on those days when patience seems as likely as a snowman in the Sahara, take heart from the wise counsel of Dr. Gaurendi, who says, “Excellent parents care with intensity, so they feel with intensity, and can react with intensity.”

Article Posted 7 years Ago

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