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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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Tags: African Safari, Baby Shark, babysitting, being patient with other people's kids, imaginary play, impatience, juggling work and family, Niger, parental anger, parents and anger, putting kids to bed, too tired to play, West Africa

Comments (17)

Whoa, that last question is a doozy. My children are all grown up now, 40, 38 and 35. I am always surprised by what they do remember, not always what I found out of the ordinary at the time of the experience. Sometimes I also wonder what their unconscious minds retain. Once I lost it with my third child, as every parent does from time to time, and slapped her face. She says she does not remember, but I'm sure it's in her unconscious mind somewhere. It happened once, but once is enough to create the memory. .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..Dressed to Prune =-.
Well for one thing we don't live with other people's kids every day. For another when we come home after a long, tedious day we are coming home to our sanctuary. A place to rejuvinate and be still. This is usually not the circumstance when we are around other parent's children. Our kids don't usually understand that Mommy needs a time out. Or, we don't put ourselves in time out when we need it. Honestly, if anyone took my purse for a swim I would be pretty mad. We all yell at our children from time to time. I say as long as it is not a habit and we are willing to apologize to ourselves and our children we are nothing but human. Plus, we are showing how to behave after life gets overwhelming and we blow a fuse.
I'm not sure why it is easier to be patient but I am so glad I'm not the only one! My son shows signs of remembering the things that upset him at the weirdest times, so I know he still thinks about them. Just yesterday morning I had the strongest urge to spank him yet, he is 2 1/2. Later in the day he recalled it and we talked some more about why I was upset. I haven't screamed yet but I have raised my voice and I always feel terrible. When I'm exhausted and stressed and he is just being a kid I try to stop what I'm doing and spend at least a few minutes remembering how much fun I have when I take the time to be a baby tiger or explain something he wants explained again. I know it sounds silly but when I take the time to smell him my patient mommy hormones kick in and it feels a little easier. Maybe it is harder with our own because it is permanent?
I think the answer is "fear." We don't have anything at stake with other people's kids, but with our own we worry that other people won't like them, or they'll grow up to be misfits. Or something. On the other hand, I tend to be very patient when other people's kids do the same kind of annoying things that my own kids do, but feel really annoyed when they do totally different annoying things.
Thank you for your honesty in this post.
Wow, ladies--your honesty is so refreshing! I try my best to be the Perfect Mom that seems to be increasingly expected of us...wish I could say my 5-year old boy has never heard my raised voice or a mean scowl on my face, but I can't. And I'm floored that I hear so many women in online forums chastise each other for being human and letting their kids see that GUESS WHAT? We all have thresholds and it's probably a good idea that they learn early that not every person in the world has an endless supply of patience. (And for the record; the only other kids I get annoyed with easily are the ones whose parents offer them little or no discipline...which are interestingly enough, the parents who are judging other parents the most. I realize it's the grown-ups I should be most annoyed with, not their poor kids.)
My kids are teens now, and I haven't yelled in a long time. Grumpy sometimes, but the yelling seems to come when you are just plain exhausted and out of inner resources. I'm only slightly more patient with other people's kids...maybe it's because you know you don't have to deal with the consequences of whatever they are doing, it's easier to stay patient. But I think children can have good manners pretty young and I don't think out of control little ones are cute at all. Anyway, when my children were small, it was a lot of physical work without much of a break. I loved it, but by the end of the day sometimes I would be so tired I would lose it and yell. Eventually I realized if I was yelling, that was my cue that whatever I was doing, it wasn't working, and I needed to come up with a different strategy. I did feel quite bad about losing my temper. But apologizing for yelling, admitting it was wrong for me to do it, and asking them to forgive me always brought immediate forgiveness from the offended child, and any distance between us was healed. Miraculous. A couple of times I yelled so loud I scared them, and that really made me feel rotten. I mean, a big grown-up intimidating a little child just because I can, how low can you get? Giving myself a time out helped when I was beginning to boil, if I could leave them unsupervised. But mostly I relied on apologies. Our kids know we are not perfect and they resent it if we act like we are always right. But if we admit when we are wrong, it draws them close to our hearts, perhaps closer than if we had never had to apologize in the first place. It also gives them a example of how to apologize when they need to. I remember the first time I heard one of my children apologizing to the other, without prompting...what a great day that was! So it's not all bad. If you are older, you might remember the movie Love Story, where Ali McGraw says "Love means never having to say your sorry?" Has to be one of the dumbest sentences ever spoken. Love means having to you're sorry, over and over, as often as necessary. And also to remind yourself regularly to smile, to really look at your kid and remember what a miracle that little being is, that you love them so much you would die for them, and then ask yourself what kind of mommy you want them to remember, like someone else has already written. Now we can all breathe a sigh of relief that we are not the only ones who have yelled at our kids!
funny. i'm less patient with other people's kids. my own children seem charming and i get where their actions come from (which doesn't at all mean that i don't lose my patience, i do). but i know less about other children, so their whining or irrational behavior is far more annoying. the better i know the child, the more patient i am. interesting topic. it never occurred to me that others would feel differently! how good to know.
Wow, I'm less patient now then before I had a kid, thats for sure, I used to be able to put up with everything! Now however, things are a little different! .-= Mallory ´s last blog ..Todays Scores! =-.
My son is nearly 25, so I have to stretch my memory a bit here. But I do recall being easier on my son's friends, who spent a lot of time in our home during the growing up years. The stakes are so much higher with our own kids. When my son was rude, for example, or generally showed a lack of basic social skills, it worried me ... would his behavior impact his relationships with teachers (and peers) at school? Would it hurt his career later on? And so on. When I noticed other kids being rude, I usually overlooked it (unless they were being absolutely awful to me) and chalked it off as normal kid behavior. Speaking of which, I was listening to public radio on the way back from a job on the other side of the state on Sunday. The topic was the problem of today's children lacking social skills because (reputedly) they spend so much time interacting on their computers. According to the commentator, parents aren't teaching them these skills. It's so bad in parts of the Midwest, she said, that schools are offering classes in remedial social skills -- for little kids. .-= Cindy L´s last blog ..Back- sort of … =-.
Someone else said it...fear. When other siblings bicker, it's annoying but I can take it at face value. When it's my kids, there's the fear that someone will hit the other, that they're really dysfunctional misfits (irrational fear), that they'll never stop, that I don't have the skills to intervene effectively. We probably expect more from our own children too. .-= 6512 and growing´s last blog ..Advice to new moms- get thee a Mama Tribe =-.
I resemble so many of these remarks. But I think the main reason why it's harder to be patient with our own kids is because we're not the ones paying for the wasted bottle of shampoo someone else's child pours into the tub, or cleaning up after someone else's child's mess. When it's our responsibility to fix, that's when we're most likely to start feeling overwhelmed; and it's when we're feeling overwhelmed that we're most likely to lose our tempers. As for kids remembering those less patient moments, I'm generally not finding that to be true, thank God. If the overall atmosphere is one of love and support and respect, they forgive and forget the wobbles. I've probably grown more concerned, now that I'm on child no. 6, who's 12, with how I react to shocking or frightening or anxiety-inducing news. I sense my youngest always looking to my husband and me to help him process things like the Gulf Oil spill and the Great Recession. My 21-yr-old autistic son, for instance, who has (alas, under the circumstances) an elephantine memory for anything that he found shocking or frightening, still remembers my shocked-out-of-my-gourd reaction to watching the Twin Towers falling on TV on 9/11, and sometimes he still has to re-process the whole thing, after all these years. .-= Debra Murphy´s last blog ..First National “Theology of the Body” Congress =-.
I love the descriptions of happy, healthy kids making mischief! And I know I'll smile years from now at my own kids' mischief--which was NOT funny at the time! I'm starting to gain that perspective a little now. Perspective, persistence, patience--my new mantra. (I hope I can remember it next time I fume.)
I think it's easier to be patient with kids that don't sleep in your house at night and that you are not in charge of disciplining. I once offered to watch a friend's baby one night. I was patient for a couple hours, but the baby was REALLY fussy and I was really tired and it was after 11 pm and I was like,"I'm done." So I called and told her to come pick up her baby (nicely). I just think it's the period of time--with our own kids, we never get a break. It can seem interminable. With other people's kids, you get to hand them back to mommy or daddy so it never seems overwhelming. .-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..What’s Your Marriage Secret =-.
I think for a few reasons: it's novel (you aren't dealing with the same behaviors over and over like you do with your own kids), you're probably more aware of how you're reacting to them (it's easy to slip into negative parenting with your own kids without even realizing it). It's kind of like how it's easier to clean somebody else's house than your own, you know? You are totally not alone! .-= Meagan Francis´s last blog ..Feeling the fear of ticks and parenting anyway =-.
My son says: "How come when Griffin does X you think it's funny, and when I do it, you get mad?" And I don't have a good answer for that. But it's nice to know I'm not alone. Other kids' foibles don't bug you as much for the simple reason that you don't have to live with them, I guess. .-= sarah henry´s last blog ..Berkeley Bites- Elmwood Cafe Feeds People and Funds Worthy Projects =-.
I'm surprised to learn that Grandmas can also get crabby. This grandma hates it when it happens.
Mothering › Child Articles › Why is it Easier to be Patient with Other People's Kids?