one kid standing in a mud puddle on a rocky outcrop with pine trees in the distance, another kid digging with a stick in the mud

"How do you do it?" 5 Ways to be Patient, Calm, and Improve Your Relationship with Your Children

Life is short—how can we be better parents?

A couple months ago, another mom complimented me for generally being together while managing three kids—she told me I seemed calm and collected, with everything figured out. Her kids were always stressing her out! She only had two; she couldn't imagine what three would be like.

She asked me, "How do you do it?"

I'm sure I mumbled something unsatisfactory about my kids being happier and more cooperative outdoors, since this other mom only sees me at the park. While that is true—my kids do love being outdoors, and the freedom and autonomy that come along with it—it's certainly not the end of the story. Children's temperaments matter, but your own attitude toward parenting matters more.

Here are 5 ways to reframe and build up your patience, calm, and cooperation with your children.

1. Remember life is short

As the Buddhist saying goes: "Death is the only thing that is certain, but the time of death is uncertain. What shall I do?"

This subject came up at my book club recently. We read The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, which was about a woman's experience of keeping a snail as a companion during her long illness (review forthcoming!). What are the important things you want to be spending time on? Health is not guaranteed.

Few people regret spending time with their kids. Plenty look back and wish they had spent more time.

Life is short. Life is uncertain. Where and how do you want to spend time? Who do you want to spend time with? What kind of impact do you want to have, and on whom?

In this light, why wouldn't I want to spend a lot of time with my favorite people? Why wouldn't I treat them like the wonderful little people they are?

2. Remember kids are still growing

When everyone is crying (which happens, but more often they take turns), there are two options: get caught up in the moment, feel the stress and upset in the moment, reflect it back, and probably magnify it.

Or, the more skillful response: notice the moment, remember that my kids are still young and still learning emotional regulation skills, remember that they're learning these skills from me, and reflect calm back at them. Remember patience. Remember that everyone has big feelings sometimes.

Remembering what kids are capable of developmentally helps me put our day together in perspective. Do you ever make it through a whole day without feeling stress? Without getting upset or frustrated? You've hopefully learned emotion regulation skills to help you deal in constructive ways with these emotions. Young children haven't learned these skills yet. It's my job to help them learn.

As the book Hunt, Gather, Parent by Michaeleen Doucleff explained (review forthcoming!), most people underestimate children's physical skills and grossly overestimate children's emotional skills. Tantrums are indicative of a need not met, too much emotion or stimulation, something overwhelming them. The emotional part of the brain overrides the thinking part. They aren't trying to upset you. They're asking for help.

Remembering that children are still learning can help you feel empathy in the moment.

3. Give autonomy

Autonomy is incredibly important for children's overall development, development of a sense of control and self-discipline, motivation, happiness, and wellbeing. (Read my reviews of Self-Driven Child and How Children Succeed on this topic!) Autonomy is not about giving in to what the children want; it's about giving them space to learn how to be responsible for themselves in the world and to learn about natural consequences of their behavior.

If one day they draw on their faces with markers, well, I could scold them or take away markers for a week, or I could laugh with them as they giggle at themselves in the mirror and ensure they have a bath before bed. If we're at the park in winter and one of them takes off a coat, I could remind them that they'll be cold and argue about putting the cost back on, or I could ignore it, let them experience being cold, and help them zip the coat back up when they're ready to wear it. If the kids decide to use a dirt hill as a slide, or microwave frozen blueberries for lunch, well, good thing we still have that bathtub…

This one could also be called "pick your battles," since the essence is getting out of your kids' way and letting them try things. Some things are not worth arguing over. Especially outdoors, at the park---let kids be kids. Let them make messes. Let them explore.

Picking battles is also useful because it's easier to battle less often. Fewer battles make everyone happier. Being happy is more fun.

4. Pay attention and be proactive

Pay attention to your children's needs and rhythms. Be proactive, not reactive. Being proactive is different than picking your battles—it's being aware of your children's needs and responding to them before it becomes a problem.

If someone's getting grumpy, it probably means they're tired, hungry, or need a change in activity or stimulation. Act accordingly and plan accordingly. For example, don't schedule a trip to the store during a time when you know your kids are always tired. Bring a snack if you know you'll be out for a while. Schedule in quiet time for your introverts after people-heavy activities. Etc.

Being proactive can cool off many potential problems and upsets before they erupt.

5. Set yourself up for success

Finally, emotions and moods are contagious. If I am happy and calm, or if I am tetchy and frustrated, it rubs off on everyone else. Set yourself up for success by getting in the right mood.

I take a two-pronged approach. First, I pay attention to what stresses me. Psychophysiologically, when you are stressed, you have less control over your emotions and behavior. You get frustrated and angry faster. Small things can set you off. Being less stressed makes it easier to be patient, calm, and helpful.

So I avoid or minimize getting in situations that stress me unduly. An ounce of prevention and all that—I talked about this in my post on managing deadlines. For example, being tired is a stressor. So I get enough sleep. I prioritize sleep over a lot of things; it is rare for me to not get a good nightful! Sometimes that means I go to bed at 8. That's okay.

Second, I do things that make me feel calm and happy. For example, when I eat healthy and well, I am less stressed. When I take time to read, write, and work on my own projects, I feel more myself. When I have time to converse with people over the age of five, at least a few times a week, I'm happier. And so on.

How do you do it?

These are five ways I build up calmness and cooperation: Remember that life is short, that kids are still learning; that they need autonomy and not all battles need to be fought; be proactive; and destress yourself.

What methods do you use?

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

Our goal is to encourage deliberate choices, individual responsibility, and lifelong curiosity by sharing stories about our adventures in living, loving, and learning.

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