Three children in winter coats crouch down along the edge of a small creek in the woods, backs to the camera

How to Harness Patience, Expectations, Flexibility, and Relationship in Parenting for a Smoother, Less Stressful Life with Your Children

Or: How to be calm when your kid falls in the creek

What Would Jackie Do?

I was at a park with my kids and our forest school group—five or six other moms, a dozen or so kids. We had all just walked up part of a trail through tall cedar trees, winding along a little burbling creek. The air smelled of greenery and damp soil. A flat wood-plank bridge spanned the creek. It had no railings. It wasn't that high up, though. I said something to my little ones (the two-year-old and four-year-old) about how they'd get wet if they went in the water.

(Read more about our homeschooling plan for this year.)

Shortly after, I overheard two other moms joking about WWJD t-shirts. What shirts? I asked. One of them said, "Sometimes, I think, what would Jackie do?" The two moms were talking about my parenting—something about how I'd gone over to my kids as they played on the bridge had prompted the conversation.

They recalled a time the previous year when my four-year-old had fallen in the creek. (Same park, same creek.) She was completely drenched. Cold. Surprised. In tears. I mean, who wants to surprise-fall into a creek? I suppose I must have handled it calmly—fishing her out, commenting that she looked wet, wrapping her up in a towel (because if you're going to be at a park with a creek, be prepared, bring towels!), and so on. I suppose, also, that this reaction must have been a surprise to the other moms for the incident to have stuck out in their minds. Would they have freaked out more?

Playing in the creek.

They told me they liked my parenting. It was something to emulate! I was always so together! Jackie never has bad days! (To that, I told them, "I do, just not on Fridays,"—since Fridays are our forest school days—and they all laughed.)

Reflecting on that conversation later, I wondered: What was I doing that they liked? What, specifically, could they emulate? How do I present the appearance of always being together? How could they be more together, too?

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

Temperament, reactivity, and patience

First, recognize that you're starting with yourself. You have a particular temperament and personality. Some people are naturally more, or less, reactive and emotional than others. Some people have oceans of patience. Others, not so much. Wherever you start from, just recognize that some of the suggestions I share here may be harder, or easier, for you depending on your own temperament.

Patience and calmness matter a lot. Waiting things out, not rushing kids, especially their big negative emotions, nearly always works better than talking too much at them or trying to short circuit the event. As Michaeleen Doucleff wrote in Hunt Gather Parent (read my review!), try approaching an angry, tantruming child gently, as if offering a soft blanket to a lightning bolt.

This can work for several reasons. First, it gives your child space to emote. You're not trying to stop them from emoting. They get the space they need—the only way out is through, and all that. You're also modeling how to calm down and stay calm. It helps your child know that it's okay to be angry and mad, mom's not mad about it or upset too, she's with you, she's waiting for you to be ready to move on. She's helping you. She's not trying to make you not have your feelings.

Your children take their cues from you. If you freak out, they're going to freak out. If you stay calm, they're more likely to decide that they don't need to make a big deal of whatever is going on. One example is when young children fall over or bump into stuff. They're small, they're still learning about balance and walking, they're going to fall over and bump into things. If you make a huge deal out of it ("Oh no! Are you okay? Let me help you up! Come here, mommy will give you kisses." Etc, etc), they're going to learn that falling over means it's time to cry. But if you're calm and silly about it (a simple "Kaboom!" or "Whoops!"), they're more likely to laugh, get back up, and keep going—no crying, just realizing that falling and bumping is part of life.

The third reason to stay patient and calm: because generally, anything else is unhelpful. I'm looking for the fastest, optimal, most productive path forward. Me getting upset isn't usually on that path. If I can stay aware of that, I can more easily stay in calm mode. Yelling, arguing, nagging, whatever—how often does that actually help?

I'm reminded of other times with the forest school group, when my kids take turns having difficult days, crying and grumping on the picnic blanket with me. Some parents might get annoyed, and leave early. But my other kids were having fun. We're not leaving early just because one child is having a difficult time—plus, staying out in the woods might help them feel better. Again, it's a matter of waiting, staying calm and patient.

One of my stress spots can be getting out the door in the morning when we need to go somewhere. We all feel stressed and rushed: the kids aren't moving at helpful speeds! I've had to remind them twenty times to look for socks! We're going to be late! (I have an aversion to being late.) Yes, with young kids in particular, you'll need to remind them how and when to get ready to go. And sure, some of those reminders are necessary and helpful.

But I have to remind myself, too: How much of the morning stress is my fault? Maybe we needed to start earlier that morning. Maybe we need to set up more of a rhythm and routine, so the kids know what happens on mornings when we go to the park. Maybe they need more practice filling their water bottles and helping pack lunch. Maybe we need better spots for them to keep things (and practice putting things back away) so it doesn't take as long for them to find their stuff in the morning.

The kids don't want to make us late. They're not being slow on purpose. It's just what happens. Which brings me to the next point.

Assume people are doing the best they can

As Brené Brown wrote in her book Rising Strong, we bring more compassion to our interactions when we assume the people we are with are trying their best with the tools they have. With our children, we should assume that they're doing the best they can with where they're at emotionally, developmentally, etc. Your kids are trying.

But they are kids. And they want to tell you this long story right now because they haven't learned to wait (the ability to inhibit behavior develops eventually, but it takes time, and practice). Or this toy was there on the floor, so they picked it up and started playing, instead of continuing clean-up. Or they got mad at their sibling again for being in the way when trying to find their shoes, because that's what young kids do.

When I remember that kids are, generally, not trying to frustrate me on purpose but are, instead, just doing what young kids do, it helps me stay calm and patient. (It also helps me see the humor in everything the kids do.)

Remember that kids are at a different stage of life. They are doing the best they can, which can be amazing and beautiful when they help their sibling unprompted, or hug you to make you not grumpy, and stressful and frustrating when you're late and they're not moving at adult speeds. As Kim John Payne wrote in Simplicity Parenting (read my review!), children move through the world at a slower pace. They don't—they can't—move as fast as adults. They aren't adults. They shouldn't be adults. They're kids, being kids the best they can.

(Read: Cooperation without Coercion: How to Motivate Children (5 Things to Try))

Set realistic expectations

When we assume people—and our children in particular—are doing the best they can, we shift our expectations about their behavior. We remember what they're capable of and we set realistic expectations. Our kids are still developing and growing! They cannot control their behavior and emotions as much as adults, or even as much as older kids.

Remember: Your children will not be content and happy all the time. (Are you?) Because they are kids, when they are not happy, they will be loud and mad and sad and mopey and whiney and that's all normal. They are learning about appropriate ways to deal with and express emotions. Learning. It's a process. It's a long process. Plus, it is harder to inhibit and control behavior when we are upset, so all the worst stuff comes out then. (Think about how many adults are bad at dealing with and expressing emotions appropriately, even though they are adults. )

Another aspect of having realistic expectations is remembering that children are moving through life at their own pace. They're not moving at adult speeds, as Kim John Payne explained in Simplicity Parenting (read my review!). This means you need to allot more time for anything and everything you're doing with them. You have to slow down to child speed because trying to speed them up causes friction and stress.

For example, if you're going to run an errand by yourself, you can probably be out the door in two minutes, and in and out of the store in ten. With a child tagging along, triple the expected time (and if for some reason it doesn't take that long, be happily surprised).

When you're moving at a child's pace, you won't get as much done as you might want. This is normal. Slow down anyway. Realize that, for instance, with three kids, you will frequently spend half an hour trying to get out the door, rushing around, fixing last-minute problems. Someone can't find socks. Someone's socks are crooked and only Mom can fix it. Someone needs a diaper. Someone forgot to fill up their water bottle. Someone's mad because someone else is existing near them. And so on ad infinitum. (Eventually, we do all make it into the van and buckle in. Just not as quickly or smoothly as I wish we could.)

When your expectation is that things will take longer—that you'll spend half an hour on something that used to take five minutes—then you'll be less stressed about things taking longer. Quite honestly, a lot of how stressed you feel and how calm you are relates to your expectations about the situation—about your children, your life, about what can or should or ought to be happening, versus what actually is.

Slow down. Life is short and the years go by fast, or so they say. Set realistic expectations about what's possible and what your children are capable of.

(Read: How Do I Raise My Kids to Revere Life, Love the Good, and Reject the Bad?)

Be flexible

One realistic expectation is that things won't always go according to your plans. You are one person with plans; your children are their own people with their own plans—increasingly so, as they get older. Compromises will need to be made on everyone's parts to accommodate everyone. And it's not always your children who should do the compromising.

For example, sure, it's easier for you (theoretically) to drop in for some grocery shopping when you're right by the store after your kid's sports class. But is it easier for your child? Are you sabotaging your own grocery trip by choosing to do it when your kid is tired and done with being out for the day? What's the proactive, preventative approach?

As children get older, they are more able to tolerate unpleasant situations (like hunger, or going to a store they don't want, or being a little tired) without as much whining and crying. At that time, you won't have to adapt to them quite as much. They will be more capable, so you will be able to ask more of them. (Which doesn't mean you always should—you don't like running extra errands when you're tired and hungry, do you?)

Part of flexibility is proactive and preventative (read more). Pay attention early, so you can act before it's too late. For instance, choose the timing for activities based on your children's general energy levels. Do activities and outings when they're rested and fed; plan for downtime when you suspect they'll need it.

Another part of flexibility is going with the flow. If you'd planned on spending two hours at the park but the kids are still having fun and not too tired and want to stay longer, and if there's nothing urgent happening next, can you stay longer? If they want to spend a day on crafts, can you do that? I'm not saying cater to their every whim. But they have moods and interests. If there are activities you definitely want them to do, or you want to do with them, can you be flexible about when you do them? Reading books together doesn't have to be at night if that doesn't work for you. Art doesn't have to be every Wednesday at 11am. We tend to be seasonal with some activities, for example—doing more arts and crafts, and playing more board games in the colder fall and winter; spending more time outside when it's warm.

(Read: How Schools Zap Kids' Motivation and Mental Health)

Go down to your children's level

How often do you feel mad or frustrated when you ask your kids a question, or ask them to do something, and they ignore you?

Children are people. They have interests; they get busy. Sometimes, they don't hear you when they're engrossed in their own activities and actions. Sometimes, they want to finish up what they're working on before moving on to the next thing. (Don't you? "Let me finish this, then I'll come help." Whether "this" is a page of your book, washing a dish, chatting with another mom.) Can you be patient and allow them time for transitions?

Children don't purposefully ignore you (not until they're older, anyway, and even then, it's a very selective behavior). Instead, when they don't hear you, they're probably in flow, absorbed by what they're doing. They're so into whatever they're building or playing or creating that they don't hear anything else—you, or anyone. They're busy. Haven't you been in that state before? It's an incredibly important state for learning; when you're intrinsically motivated and find yourself in flow, you're learning to focus, to deeply engage, to associate the challenge of the activity with the good feeling of flow. We want kids to be this deep in their activities!

Of course, we also want kids to hear us when we ask them stuff. Instead of repeating yourself again and again and greater and greater volumes, try asking in a different way. Walk over, touch their shoulder to gain attention, talk softly as you give your message or ask your question. It's what you want them to do when they come talk to you, too, right? You'd rather they come over and ask quietly and politely instead of yelling across the room? Model that behavior.

(Read my reviews of William Stixrud and Ned Johnson's book The Self-Driven Child and Daniel Pink's book Drive)

Prioritize relationship

All these strategies contribute to prioritizing your relationship with your children. Sometimes sitting with your children while they're storming takes a while. You're not getting fast results. You're pulled out of the rest of your day and you're not accomplishing all the other things you wanted to be doing.

But pause for a moment. You're building something important when you take the time to be with your children—whatever their emotions. You're connecting. You're building their trust. They're learning that you're on their side, that they can follow your lead, that you can guide them on the road to adulthood.

Both Michaeleen Doucleff, in her book Hunt Gather Parent (read my review!), and Kim John Payne, in Simplicity Parenting (read my review!), wrote about the importance of parents as authority figures. Children want and need their parents to be in charge. It's a comforting thing when you're small to know that someone's watching out for you and knows how things ought to be. It's a normal part of development.

There's a lot of parenting books out now that talk about different parenting styles, the key one being authoritarian (too controlling and rigid) versus permissive (too loose and lacking boundaries), but authoritative. Authoritative parenting is the middle ground, so to speak. You set reasonable limits that are in the child's best interest, you create boundaries that enforce your family values, and you help your children follow these rules, even when it makes them mad. Having boundaries helps children feel safe and lets them be independent at their own pace. When you're calm and consistent, when you don't punish unnecessarily (there's also a lot written on the benefits of "natural consequences" versus punishments), when your children can see over time that you're doing your best to look out for them—when you prioritize relationship—that's what works best.

And now, next time your child falls in a creek, now you know: this is what Jackie would do.

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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.

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