The longest post you'll ever read about being a patient parent
[I wrote this a while ago, back when I was considering writing a book about parenting. Ha ha. What a total joke. I have fallen on my face more times than I can count since then and I can't quite imagine pitching it to a publisher.
"So, what's your expertise in writing this book?"
"Um, well, I've failed a lot. I'm pretty hot stuff at telling people what not to do..."
Anyway, the good thing that came out of the whole disastrous book-thinking-about episode was that I really actually thought a lot about patience... and came up with this. Which you will definitely need patience to read. It is long. But thorough, and fairly complete.]
How, as a parent, to get patience
It's a rule of childhood that at some stage you'll come across an impatient teacher. We've all had them. We probably remember them very clearly. (Ahem. Mrs Mirza.) At one point or another we were on the receiving end of an outburst. We remember how we used to tiptoe around in fear, trying not to trigger the anger – or perhaps we took the opposite approach and deliberately tried to press their buttons and watch the explosions occur.
Think back to an experience you've had with an adult who was impatient with you. It's unlikely that with hindsight you would be saying, "yes, I was at fault there. I deserved to be yelled at." It is more likely that you would say, "I was scared of that person and they were unfair to me. I felt hurt, afraid and misunderstood. I didn't like them then and I wouldn't like them now."
The response children give to an impatient teacher or adult is a mixture of fear, distrust resentment or detached amusement. It's not respect, appreciation or love.
It's interesting that patience is the first thing that is mentioned in the Bible's definition of love. I struggle with it. I'm not good at it. And I know I'm not alone. In every playgroup I've ever attended, every week someone has talked about patience.
"If I have more patience I know I will be a better parent," I have said myself. "I just need more of it." Everyone has nodded knowingly with slightly bitter giggles.
"We know," they say. "Us too," and then somebody begins a story about how the car broke down and the baby vomited and then the two-year-old spilled dirt all over the floor and they completely lost it and screamed at everybody for half an hour and looking around you can see that everyone else has their own version of the same story and we all know exactly what the other people are talking about.
What is patience really? And how do you get it?
A friend of mine defined patience as 'waiting without complaining' and while to some extent she is right, to me it sounds passive and negative. I want a positive, enjoyable experience of patience. I want to be able to look forward to being patient rather than approaching it with dread or discomfort.
What is patience? It's more than just tolerating, it's more than waiting without complaining and it is more than just trying harder to be nicer.
I think patience is when you are fully present for the time that something takes, when you are able to wait joyfully without even a seed of resentment, when you can expand and blossom so that you can give what needs to be given, when you can put your own desires to one side knowing that it is just for a time, and when you are able to give a genuine smile and an answer without anger to the three-year-old who has asked you "why?" for the fifth time. Patience is having the grace to let other people learn what you already know. It's appreciating something that's different from what you wanted. It's seeing yourself as one part of a bigger situation and holding a bigger perspective in your mind.
How do you get it? I used to pray for it fervently. "Oh God, please give me patience, please! I really really really need it. Right now." (Ha! Irony!)
Sometimes it seemed to work. I would approach the day in a good mood, full of smiles and a determination to be patient and kind but by about the second or third hour of trying to be perfect I would find it all falling down again. I would put the TV on for the children (something good mothers are not supposed to do), make myself a cup of tea and sit on the couch feeling like a failure. I wouldn't pray again for patience for another couple of weeks because I was so disillusioned.
I think I expected patience to be poured into me supernaturally and overnight. When it didn't happen I got cranky with myself and with God, who obviously wasn't fulfilling his part of the bargain.
But I forgot that patience is called a fruit of the spirit. Perhaps always buying my fruit from the supermarket, shiny and glossy and all piled up neatly has allowed me to ignore the fact that fruit has to grow. It takes time. And it only grows well on a healthy tree.
It struck me one day while I was sulking on the couch, that perhaps I was attempting to manufacture the fruit instead of preparing the conditions for it to grow naturally. I was focusing on the fruit itself rather than looking more closely at the life in which it was growing.
What's actually going on?
I think it's fair to say that most parents get impatient around the same things. Getting my four children up, fed and dressed neatly, with bags packed, notes signed and library books in their hands to send them off to school is a pretty stressful part of the day and I have yelled at them more times that I would like to admit. But love is patient and I don't want it to be that way so I need to look at what is actually going on.
There are lots of aspects to daily life. Most obvious are the circumstances themselves. These are what we tend to focus on. When my son loses his shoes and I yell at him it's easy to blame my outburst on his carelessness. But lost shoes are simply lost shoes. It's quite likely that they are in the house somewhere and can be found pretty easily within three minutes. The truth is that the circumstances are not usually the cause of the impatience. It's much more important to look at my thoughts about the lost shoes. These might be:
"I worked so hard to keep this house tidy and he is not doing his part. I feel angry and unappreciated."
“We are going to be late because of this. I will be embarrassed if we are late and my day will be ruined."
"I need to get lots of stuff done today and this is wasting my time. I feel anxious and inconvenienced."
"Why does this always happen to me? I bet Kylie down the street never has this problem with her children. I feel like a failure as a parent. Poor me. I can't cope."
“My head feels terrible because I hardly slept last night. Why can't anyone show me some sympathy?"
“I am really angry with my sister for being mean to me on the phone yesterday. Everyone had better get out of my way."
“These shoes were really expensive. I don't know how I am going to be able to replace them if they are lost."
Of course most of these thoughts flash through our heads so quickly that we are not even aware that they’re there. It takes time, a deliberate effort and practice to be able to identify what we are really thinking when we get impatient. But this is part of preparing the tree for the fruit to grow.
Change the thinking
To be more patient, we need to examine what really goes on in our heads and in our hearts. We need to know what we are actually thinking and feeling and then we need to examine those thoughts and feelings.
For example, if I am worried about being late, I need to take some time to think about why that is such a problem for me. Maybe I feel embarrassed when I'm late because I think people will look down on me for not being organised or I will get a reputation for being slack.
After that I can ask myself if these things are true? Am I really not organised? And am I really that concerned about what other people think of me? And what does God think about all of this? Is organisation one of the supreme virtues in the end? And what about the fact that I think my day will be ruined if we are late? Is that really true? Sure, I might feel bad for about 20 minutes, but that is only a small part of the day. If I am really truthful I will be able to say that being late one time is not the end of the world and I am pretty shortsighted if I let it ruin a whole day.
Patience grows as we tell the truth and as we really examine our thoughts and feelings.
But don't be fooled. This may be a harder exercise than we think. It can be confronting to challenge ourselves to be honest. It may be painful and raw. But I have never seen growth in patience without pain, and this is the kind of pain which, like surgery, has a useful and a healing purpose.
Change the pace
I needed to do more work on examining the place where this fruit of patience was supposed to be growing and so I decided to look in detail at the times and places where I needed it. I wrote down this sentence, filled in the blanks and was surprised by what I found.
I find it hard to be patient when.....
- I'm rushing
- I have expectations of other people that they don't share
- I am focused on the things I 'need to do' or I'm trying to do too much
- I have a lot in my head at once
- I forget about the real goal purpose of my life
- I have not slept or eaten properly
- I am not rested sufficiently
- I am angry and have not told the truth about my feelings
- I am worried
When I looked at this list closely it became really clear that in order to get more patience, I needed to slow down. I'm talking about slowing down both physically and emotionally, and it made me scared.
I'm the sort of person who has always done four things at once while at the same time thinking about the fifth and sixth things to do as soon as I have finished. I like achievement. I like efficiency. I like competence. I like not wasting time. I finish people’s sentences for them. I get impatient when I have to wait… for anything. I don't relax and I find it really hard to go on holiday.
Slow down? The idea terrified me. Rushing through life makes me feel important. Having lots of things to do gives me a sense of purpose. Being busy is a badge I wear to show off to others. See how much I can do? See how clever I am?
I found myself facing what felt like a terrible dilemma: Was I willing to give up my sense of importance, purpose and status in order to gain patience? Previously when I had prayed for patience I hadn’t realised that so much in my own life would have to change. Now I was facing being stripped of the false walls of pride that I had built up over many years and it hurt to let it all go.
Slowing down is essential to growing patience. Most of us today live with no margins in our lives and no spaces for rest. We have high levels of stress. We get a buzz from achievement and we feel alive when we are surrounded by activity.
But I'm sorry to say, this pace doesn't work with children. Children haven't learnt to rush or hurry. They come out of the womb unaware of time, but very aware of life. They care less about achievement than about discovery and less about deadlines than about cuddles and sunshine. If we want to be patient with our children we need to slow down the pace.
Getting rid of clutter
It's a fact that my brain can only really hold three or four things it at one time. If I'm cooking dinner while at the same time making cupcakes for a child's birthday the next day as well as checking Facebook (yes, it's true – I often burn things for this reason) I will snap at my husband when he comes in and wants my opinion about which car he should take to tennis later that night.
The more things in my brain and the more interruptions I get, the more impatient I am.
When you have children you can guarantee that there will be about 50 million more distractions in your day than before you had them. And when you have more children the interruptions grow exponentially! Your brain will be busy. So you need to get rid of unimportant stuff in your life.
Prioritise. Declutter. Whatever. Just make more space in your life to process the important things. You might find this means you go through your house and physically remove objects which are taking up space or energy or emotion. Or you might need to de-clutter some emotional stuff from your past.
There are many things which take space in our brain but which are really not important. Making space allows patience to flourish.
This is really about taking a pre-emptive approach to patience. If you are losing it because the house is chaos, it may be more appropriate to think about fixing the chaos rather than trying to get more patience.
I am generally a good planner (it kind of goes with the efficiency thing) so this area of growing patience has never been difficult for me, but I know that planning is not everyone’s strength. The simple fact is, however, that if you have a place to leave the shoes every night, it is less likely that they will be lost in the morning. If you write a list of jobs that every child needs to do, it is more likely they will be done before everyone gets in the car. If you plan to allow five extra minutes before you need to load everyone in, your stress levels will be lower and you will probably not be late, and you will probably not get impatient and lose it and yell at everyone.
(Someone once told us that we needed to allow five extra minutes per child to get ready to go out. It was some of the most valuable advice I ever received. I know how long it takes me to get ready so I simply add 20 extra minutes if I'm taking everyone with me! Of course, this may not be right for your family. You will need to think things through according to your own strengths and weaknesses.)
A good plan starts with evaluation. What are the problems your family faces every day? Write them down and look at them for a few days. Are there some simple things you can do immediately to iron out some of the challenges? If the whole idea overwhelms you, it might be a good idea to ask for help either from a trusted friend or a professional.
Sometimes we get impatient because our children can't or won't do what we expect of them. It's easy to assume immediately that the child is lazy, naughty or defiant. It takes a little bit more thinking to work out if there really is something else going on.
I once saw a book with a list of household chores according to a child's age. At age 6, the ideal child should have been able to make his bed and tidy his room without help, set the table and wash up, scrub walls and even clean toilets. He should have been able to organise his things, pack his lunch and drive himself to school. (No sorry, I'm kidding. But only about the driving to school part.)
Some six-year-olds, certainly, are able to do many of those jobs. But not all. Children are different. And while it is a good thing to have high expectations of your children – after all, they do rise to expectations – it is also wise to be aware that sometimes they simply are not capable of doing all that you want them to do.
This is where scaffolding comes in. Where we build a house, we use scaffolding to support the brickwork as the structure gets higher. We don't expect the scaffolding to be there once the job is done. It is only support.
In the same way we parents can support our children doing their tasks and learning competence by ‘scaffolding’ them. It can be by doing the job with them at first, then by breaking the task down for them and then by simply giving small reminders to stay on task later on as they develop competence.
Being clear about your feelings and wants
Part of being patient is being able to put your own needs on the sideline for a while while you attend to the needs of someone else. However it is not unreasonable or impatient for you to say clearly and calmly what it is that you want.
My most stressful time of day is the period that is known as "the witching hour”. You might know it as the manic panic or cyanide hour. It's that period when everyone is hungry and needy and there is homework to be done and dinner to be cooked and more often than not a toddler to be placated. I cannot do it without screaming at people unless I set some boundaries.
"Please don't talk to me right now, I need to concentrate on not burning your food."
"I need the table set in 5 minutes, otherwise we will not be eating."
"Please ask me that later when I have time to answer you properly."
Finding other ways to get what you need
I get impatient when I want something but for some reason other things are getting in the way and I can't get what I want. I notice this most when I have a really good book to read. I am the kind of person who likes to dive into a book headfirst and not come out until the last page is turned.
This works well if I have 24 of 48 hours to myself. The problem is that I have not had 24 to 48 hours to myself for a good 15 years or so. Almost every time I have enjoyed a good book in the last decade I have been frustrated and impatient because somebody (usually somebody small) has come along needing something that only I can give them.
I have had to practice thinking to myself, "it's okay. I can get a two-hour uninterrupted stretch tonight after 8.30. Then I can enjoy the book."
Sometimes if things are really rough, I think to myself, "it's okay. In about 10 years I really will have the time to put into reading. Right now it's a bit difficult, that's true, but there will be time in the future."
Emotional needs that don't get net can also be a trigger for impatience. One night our 12 year old daughter was sitting up with us, waiting for her bedtime.
"Is this, like, what you do at night?" she said. "Don't you do anything interesting?"
My feelings were hurt immediately and I wanted to snap at her. Doesn't she realise that I’ve spent the day doing her washing, cleaning and cooking? I thought. Does she think I really enjoy spending my energy taking her to the dentist? Can't she understand that, having met everyone else's needs all day long, I might just need to sit on the couch and "do nothing"? Doesn't she understand the sacrifices that I have made for her?
In the cold light of day, of course I know that the answer is no to all of the questions I asked myself. She doesn't know, and she can't possibly understand until she is either 25 years old or a mother herself.
Our children can never meet our emotional needs. Yes, it's nice when they make us feel good, but that is not what parenting is about. We need to find other ways to get our needs for appreciation of validation or importance met.
So, where can I get my need for appreciation met? I am finding that in the end, only God is able to meet my needs. He reminds me of his love and compassion and respect and enjoyment for me in the Bible.
When I ask the question, "what do I need?" I have not had an instance yet in which I find that God can't meet the need.
When my thoughts are scurrying around my head and I'm writing my mental to do list at the same time as doing the dishes and answering questions and packing lunches I seem to lose it a lot more often.
When I take a deep breath and feel my physical self being present in the room it is a lot easier to keep patience.
This is what people talk about when they say they need to 'live in the moment'. It is something that you need to practice, preferably when you are not in the middle of your busiest patch. Practising deep, calm breathing, being still and relaxing your brain will help you train your body to be more present more often. And patience will grow.
Impatience flourishes when we focus on what we don't have. We think I want to go faster, I don't want to deal with this, I just want to get there.
But patience flourishes when we are grateful for what we do have. It may sound cheesy and Pollyanna-esque, but verbalising the tiny, beautiful details of everything you do have right here, right now helps you see that things are actually better than you think.
I have walked a lot of children to school in my time and I wish that instead of yelling, "walk quicker! We are going to be late!" I had said quietly to myself, "I am so thankful that my children have legs and feet that work. And shoes that they can wear so they can walk. I am thankful for the sunshine today. I am thankful for the hours ahead in my day. "
I don't normally do very well on holidays. I find myself getting almost grumpier than I do at home. The best holiday I have ever had was the one where I decided to practice thankfulness. Every day I took a walk along the path next to the beach and under my breath I spoke about the beautiful things I was thankful for. Things like the colour blue, the angle of grass bending under the wind, the arrogant hopping of seagulls waiting for a fish, the miniscule grainy particles of sand, cloud shapes, grandparents helping children on scooters, the quiet zoom of skateboards and bikes on concrete, the warmth of sun on skin. I came home from each walk feeling elated and rich.
Since that time I have found that practising gratitude and speaking words of thankfulness every day helps me to slow down and really live in the moment. It actually makes me happier.
And a slow, happy life is always going to be more patient than a fast paced, discontented existence that is always wanting more.