Why is it Easier to be Patient with Other People’s Kids?

Not-quite-three-year-old Etani swings on a swing in the guesthouse where we stayed when we first arrived in Niger (note the words on his T-shirt!)

Not-quite-three-year-old Etani swings on a swing in the guesthouse where we stayed when we first arrived in Niger (note the words on his T-shirt!)

I started babysitting when I was still in elementary school. I worked as a mother’s helper for a family of six when I was in junior high. It was so much fun—combing knots out of tangled hair, lulling a crying infant to sleep, sorting buttons with a 4-year-old, playing African Safari and hunting lions under the dining room table.

I knew just what to do to comfort a crying child. I was firm and consistent without being scolding, tolerant and funny and energetic.

Then I had my own children.

Why is it easier to be nice, patient, and uncritical with someone else’s kids?

When my niece decides to “water” the grass in the park with sand from the sand box I enjoy watching her excited little self rearranging matter, wondering if she’ll turn out to be a scientist like my mom.

When our neighbor’s son dumps an entire container of shampoo into the bathtub, his dad explodes with rage but I secretly can’t understand why his parents are so mad at this age-appropriate behavior.

7-year-old Hesperus swings into the pool

7-year-old Hesperus swings into the pool

But crying and bickering that seem normal (and almost amusing) from other people’s kids drive me a step closer to insanity when it’s my own children who are doing it.

On a bad day when my kids start acting up my patience deserts me, the temper I never thought I had flares, and I find myself yelling all the things the parenting books emphasize you should never say to your children.

I still remember one particularly difficult day during the year we spent in Niger. Up late preparing an 8:00 a.m. class, I awoke exhausted, left before my daughters’ school bus came, and had a grueling day of teaching and meetings. It was 120 degrees that day.

When it’s that hot, before you finish a glass of ice water it’s already being secreted from every pore. It feels like you’re living in a sauna, or a kitchen with no windows where chicken’s frying.

When I finally got home my three kids (Leone wasn’t born yet) were splashing in the pool that came with our rental house. They each came running over to hug me.

“Come in the pool with us Mommy,” they cried.

“Play Baby Shark with me Mommy,” screamed Etani, who was just three years old then.

“Watch me swim, Mommy. Mommy! You’re not watching,” shouted 7-year-old Hesperus.

“I need attention too,” murmured 6-year-old Athena.

All of a sudden I felt miserable. I didn’t want to play Baby Shark. I didn’t want to watch my daughter swim a lopsided crawl across the pool for the fifteenth time.

6-year-old Athena floating in the pool

6-year-old Athena floating in the pool

Where was the patient babysitter I used to be? The playful aunt? The silly parent who had a pretend twin sister named Nenny?

Replaced by an overtired mother who felt like a popped balloon.

Then my son decided to dump a bucket of water on the bathroom floor and take my purse, which he had stolen off the kitchen table, for a swim.

“Bed,” I roared. “No books. Don’t brush your teeth. You kids are driving me crazy. I am done, done, done!”

They trudged off to bed. I felt totally ashamed of myself. They hadn’t done anything wrong. They were just being kids. That was their job.

It wasn’t their fault that I was tired, anxious about work, and miserably hot.

Posing with some of my literature students from the University of Abdou Moumouni in Niamey, Niger, West Africa

Posing with some of my literature students from the University of Abdou Moumouni in Niamey, Niger, West Africa

I went into the girls’ room to say goodnight. The bangs on Athena’s forehead were wet with sweat. I smoothed them aside and kissed her. She put her small arms around my neck and hugged me.

“I love you Mommy,” she whispered.

“I’m sorry I yelled,” I whispered back.

“It’s okay.” Athena patted me gently on the back.

Readers, do you find that it’s easier to be patient with other people’s kids than with your own? Do you ever yell at your children? Do you feel badly when you do? I worry that my kids will remember the mom who was too tired to play Baby Shark and not the mom who had a pretend twin sister named Nenny and took them on an imaginary snake hunt in Kenya. What do you think our children remember from their childhoods?


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