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Patience is Overrated

"I just don't understand it," one Mom complained. "He was so awful all weekend, and I was so patient. I must have bitten my tongue a thousand times, and he just kept at me. Finally, I just couldn't take it anymore and I lost it. I felt completely unappreciated."

The most common definition of "patient" in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, reads: "to bear pains or trials calmly or without complaint." But if we bear our children's misbehavior without complaint, what are we teaching our children? In the long run, how effective is our patience? And what, ultimately, does our child learn when she continuously misbehaves without repercussions, and sees us "being patient," only to explode in the end?

Many parents believe they're being patient when in reality they're being "doormats" and letting their children walk all over them. This kind of patience is detrimental to both parent and child. Biting our tongues, or bearing our painful feelings and trials without complaint when our child is misbehaving generally means that we're stuffing our own increasingly negative feelings deep down inside of ourselves where they fester and grow until we can't stand it anymore. Finally they explode out of us, causing us to "lose it" with our children.

Jeanne and Don Elium, coauthors of "Raising a Son" and "Raising a Daughter," suggest that our feelings can be represented in a bell curve. Initially, your feelings about your child's misbehavior may be mildly negative, but as the misbehavior continues, your feelings begin to escalate, rising until they reach a "point of no return." Prior to the point of no return, your thoughts were clear, your patience commendable by most standards. But upon hitting the "point of no return," you enter into what they call the "non-thinking zone." While in this zone, your thoughts are muddled, your negative feelings are intense, you lose not only patience, but the capacity for either rational thought or action. Given enough time, of course, your feelings eventually subside, and you again become capable of thinking and acting rationally, and "with patience."

Clearly, this practice serves no one. In fact, when your frustration level is so high, you probably wind up acting more disrespectfully toward your child and being more punitive than you would have been if you hadn't been "patient" in the first place. In other words, the practice of being patient often undermines it's own goal!

So rather than "being patient" while your child misbehaves, ACT! Tell your child how you feel about his misbehavior and give him an immediate consequence so that he can learn from his mistakes. The benefit here is that your action will take place before you reach the "point of no return." It is more likely to be based, therefore, on clear, rational thoughts. Your child will not see you as impatient, but will view you as a parent who has thought out the limits and rules, and who is in charge. He or she will ultimately respect you for taking a stand early in the misbehavior.

This early stand benefits the child in many ways. When he feels as though you have a clear idea of what the limits are, he feels more secure in his environment. A parent who is "patient" and then explodes, however, is confusing to a child. He can't see the festering feelings that you have during the time you're being patient, all he sees is that you're letting him get away with a lot of misbehavior. He figures he's home free, until you explode and become a raging lunatic. Then he's likely to feel confused, because "why was it o.k. to do this a minute ago, and now it looks like it's a really terrible thing?"

I like Webster's third and fourth definitions of patience better than the most common definition. According to Webster, to be patient also means "not hasty or impetuous; steadfast despite opposition, difficulty or adversity." A parent who is not hasty sets limits based on clear rational guidelines. She doesn't act impetuously because rather than "being patient" and stuffing her feelings down until they reach astronomical proportions, she acts immediately when limits are called for. This type of "patient parent" is steadfast and firm about the limits he's set, knowing that they're in the child's best interests, and he's willing to be firm about those limits in the face of the child's opposition. The child of these parents is confident that her parents know what they're doing (at least most of the time) because their words and actions rarely come out of the "non thinking zone." This child feels secure and learns for herself how to refrain from acting hastily, how to think through her beliefs and stand up for herself. She is steadfast about her principles and the other things she believes in. And perhaps most importantly, she'll never be someone else's "doormat."