Choosing patience

July 26, 2009 | 41 comments

When we found out that all our paperwork was approved and we’d be hosting a Kidsave child this summer, one of the first things I thought was that I was going to have to work on patience. I had always thought of myself as a fairly patient mom, especially considering my circumstances with four kids under five, yet when I thought of how my daily behavior might seem to a child who didn’t know me well — who may have even experienced abuse* — I realized that things were going to have to change.

At least a couple times a week the chaos of our house causes me to lose my cool, acting in a “red zone” frame of mine where my actions are driven by boiling emotions of anger or fear or frustration rather than being driven by reason and love. I end up doing things like yelling at the kids or using a sharp tone of voice with anyone unlucky enough to be in my path, sometimes also being extra forceful with my body language by slamming drawers shut or making a bunch of racket while putting dishes in the sink.

I’ve always excused this behavior.

Until recently I told myself that my actions aren’t all that bad, and that, besides, this is really the best I can do given all the chaos around here. I saw losing one’s temper on a semi-daily basis as part and parcel of having a bunch of little kids, and figured that I couldn’t expect to do any better than I’m already doing — there’s only so much one person can take, after all!

But when I thought about the prospect of a child living with us who might have experienced physical abuse, the calculation changed. I’ve only had limited experience with people who have tendencies toward violence, but I know enough to know that seeing them get into that “red zone” strikes terror into your heart because you never know when they’re going to start swinging. Obviously my friends and family know that I would never do anything like that, but the Kidsave child would have no such assurance since I would be a total stranger to her.

Realizing just how frightening it could be for a new child in our house to see me slide into that “red zone” state of mind (especially an orphan, with no one to protect her other than the state) I resolved to keep my cool no matter what. Even on those days when all my children seem to be doing some kind of tag-team whine/scream/throw temper tantrum game and I can’t even get one second of silence and I find marker on the wall and it takes an hour to complete the simplest task like changing a load of laundry, I would at least pretend to be in a calm state of mind. My blood might be boiling on the inside, but I would not let it show on the outside.

Sure enough, I don’t think Rita had been here 48 hours before I got my first opportunity to put this commitment into practice. The first few days she was here my three toddlers pushed limits in a big way and the baby was uncharacteristically fussy, more than once leaving me feeling so frustrated that I felt like my head was going to explode.

But a funny thing happened when I was forced to act like a patient person: I actually started to become a little more patient.

Not having the smoke-and-mirrors option of continuing to raise my voice and have a hissy fit until I got my children’s attention, I was forced to follow through more and threaten less. I realized that that tendency toward yelling been borne of laziness as much as anything: it’s easier to make a bunch of noise than it is to, say, drop what you’re doing to take a recalcitrant toddler to time out and make sure he stays there. Now that I was forced to put in the hard work of actual follow-through on discipline, it slowly started to become a beneficial cycle: my children started to see that the new, less noisy mommy was actually going to do what she said she was going to do, and they started to listen a little more when I warned of consequences, lessening the need for yelling in the first place. I also noticed that it seemed like the knowledge that I would not be willing to act out those feelings of frustration and anger made them less likely to come up with their usual intensity in the first place.

But I noticed something else as well, a lesson that was as surprising as it was humbling: patience is a choice. Obviously I’ve always known that I have free will and am responsible for my own actions, but I had subconsciously harbored this vague notion that sometimes things get so frustrating and chaotic and difficult that you’d have to be a superhero not to lose your temper and at least stomp around the house a little bit. And yet, in these weeks of being in a situation where that is simply not an option, with the grace of God I’ve been able to do it. It’s been painful — after all, sometimes it feels soooooo good to let the world know just how much it’s annoying you — but, even when my emotions raged within me, God did give me the resources I needed to respond with calmness almost every time frustrating situations arose.

I think that vague feeling of not being in control holds me back more than I realize. Though I give lip service to knowing that I always have the choice to do the right thing, too often I secretly feel as if I practically have to yell or gossip or make snide comments or commit any number of other sins to which I’m prone because extreme external circumstances forced me into it. This experience has made me start to wonder if maybe one of the biggest things that differentiates the saints from the rest of us is simply the willingness to face head-on the reality that, with God’s help, being a saint really is a matter of choice.

* Due to privacy concerns I should clarify that I’m not saying that Rita has or has not come from an abusive background; this was my thought process before we were even matched with a child, based on the knowledge that sometimes children in the Kidsave program have experienced that.


  1. Charlotte (Matilda)

    I loved this article and have to admit to identifying with all of it including the ugliness I saw in myself but thankfully also the realization of "patience is a choice". You have expressed it beautifully. Thank you!

  2. Anonymous

    Thank you for this post. As a child my father was physically abusive, and I struggle with my patience with my children, and with fear that I will hurt them one day when I "lose it". (Here I mean more than a spanking on the bottom.) This really encourages me to keep working on it and that it can be done.

  3. Udubalum mama

    Isn't it amazing how motivated we are to be patient with our children while an outside observer is around? I'm struck daily by how easily I slip into impatient, visibly frustrated mommy mode when it's just me and the kids. The fragility of their newly forming perspectives on how people relate to one another should be reason enough for us to ask diligently every day for God to help us to choose patience. Thank you for writing about this.

  4. Lucy

    Wow, you've got my number! And your last sentence is very perceptive, in my opinion. 🙂

  5. Kathy

    I heard someone say recently that you have to "train" yourself to the virtues just like an athlete has to train to prepare for a race.

    Virtues don't just happen, they have to be actively worked on or as you said, "chosen".

  6. Elizabeth Mahlou

    Great graphic, very to the point! Yes, patience is a choice, but it is also a matter of a lot of practice and a good deal of attitude. It took me years to realize that — a lot longer than it has taken you so give yourself some credit due. When I was totally out of patience with 4-7 kids, depending on whether I am talking about toddler years or teenage years, all of whom had one kind or another of special need, I would throw a knife at the ceiling where it stuck. That really scared the kids, but I did not know it at the time. I just reasoned, "better a knife in the ceiling than physical abuse of the kid." My older son picked up on that. Once I returned home after he had watched his younger, mentally challenged and hyperactive brother for a few hours, to find a pan with a broken handle in the sink. When I asked why, he replied, "better the pan than Doah's head!" Indeed. However, it is quite humiliating and behavior-modifying to see that our children are much likely to follow our example than our training or words of advice!

  7. Tienne

    Jen: profound and timely; as always you seem to post exactly what has been on my heart, too. Love and prayers.

  8. Anonymous

    I could just die when I think of the years of raising my children. I wish I could have had your clarity of mind then. You are truly wise-I want to say wise beyond your years, but these thoughts are desperately what stay at home moms need to be thinking on a daily basis.

  9. Elizabeth

    As someone who comes from an abusive background, I can attest to trying to predict "triggers" that would signal the onset of a "red zone." I absolutely agree that yelling is laziness more than anything else. Frankly, it's more difficult to be consistent than to yell. But the rewards of consistency far outweigh any temporary inconvenience.

  10. Sara

    I recently found out that patience comes from a the Latin word for receive. It really changed my perspective. I'd always thought of patience in regards to NOT getting what I want. Now I think of it as Christ offering me something different, something better. Now when things don't go my way, I ask Him to help me understand what He's offering me and give me the grace to receive it (and receive Him) with an open heart.

  11. Megan

    Whew! This is good stuff. So totally convicting and humbling. Thank you for sharing it.

  12. Domestic Accident

    Great post. Keeping my mom cool is by far my biggest parenting challenge. Who knew one day, just getting everyone into the van and buckled and moving on time would become a hugely stressful event in my life?

    I chose to melt down and yell because it's just easier than doing the hard work of patience and discipline with my children. You're right I need to exercise my patience muscles and make them stronger. Thanks for posting this. I'm sure every mom can relate.

  13. coffeemom

    yup. excellent. Spot on. Sigh….. thanks for being so honest and as you see, it helps us all! bless you!

  14. Courtney

    great post to start my week off in the right direction. Thank you!

    Today's scripture ( is "faith of a mustard seed" parable.

    hopefully, the little bit of patience I practice this week, will grow as the mustard seed!~

  15. Lenae

    Like the rest, I really needed to read this. I'm bookmarking it to come back to!

  16. tootie

    I liked how you said that patience was a choice – that really made me stop and think. Up until now, I've always thought patience was almost something you were born with or not (ie, "I'm not a patient pereson").

    I guess it's like anything else – we choose how we are going to act/react.

  17. Anonymous

    Congratulations on growing up! There are all kinds of excuses for the behavior you described, but ultimately, no, it is not acceptable to lose your temper and yell at your family on a daily basis. In fact, yelling at children is a form of abuse. Your OWN children have suffered this abuse and it is very fortunate that the prospect of an outside observer finally gave you some insight. I think you also have amends to make as well.

  18. Kristen

    A perfect post, Jen. I love that you put patience in the context of choice – it's easy to deceive ourselves into thinking it's lack is an un-willed reaction. I once heard it said that every action performed moves us either closer to God or further away from Him.

  19. Patty

    Thank you for being so open and honest about your struggles with patience. I don't have any children yet, but I work with students as part of my job and I definitely lose my cool. Admitting personal faults and failings is brave and I wanted you to know that especially in light of the last anonymous comment which, in my opinion, was unnecessarily harsh and judgemental considering your description of your own situation. Thanks again, Jen! I love your blog.

  20. brian

    So good, Jennifer, like all of your posts!

  21. Leigh @ Organic Mamas

    Thank you for this post! This is exactly what I needed today!

  22. Misty

    Thank you so much for your honesty and willingness to share. I also struggle with losing my temper and while I am quick to admit it, I often make light of it or tend to make the same excuses for myself. What a great reminder that patience is a choice. Thanks to Sara too- I will definitely remember that perspective.

  23. Purplebears

    Wow, your observations are powerful. I've noticed a tendency to yell in myself as well, and I never thought about the be quiet and ACT scenario. Humbling to admit I have not been following through on discipline, and this "could" be contributing to their behavior. Thank you, bless you!

  24. Melanie B

    Thank you so much for this. I am struggling so hard to be more patient and to avoid that red zone. Your experience is both encouragement and admonishment. Like you, I think I too often make excuses for the times when I lose control.

  25. Anonymous


    I want to thank you for this post. I struggle constantly with keeping my cool with my six year old daughter. I am such a yeller, and I hate it.

    The other day I babysat an 8 year old boy for the first time in my life (total introvert freaking out here). It was such a battle to be patient with two big kids but I did it.

    You are so right that it is a choice, and that it is so easy to fall into that "I'm entitled" mentality given all the struggles we go through each day. But the bottom line is children deserve better.

    Again, thank you for this. You encouraged me today to try harder for my family.

    Take care

  26. Anonymous

    I realized that I really needed to watch my temper and be more patient when I realized that after one of my yelling episodes, my daughter had a very worried/unsure look on her face. Now I really try very hard to speak in soft, gentle tones to her or around her. I'm not perfect about it (yet), but it is better.

  27. Jet


    Thanks for this fabulous and insightful post. I especially like the way you stated that patience is a *choice*. To the anonymous poster who responded far less than charitably, give thanks to God if you are a patient person; especially, when handling myriad family situations. We all have strengths and weaknesses and thankfully Catholics have the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is absolutely not an excuse to wallow in 'affection for sin' (St. Augustine) and make excuses. Remember the (albeit trite) adage: "Be patient; God isn't finished with me yet." I am often lacking in meekness when dealing with (ds13 going on 21, dd10going on 16, ds4 (and ds11 weeks)) but praying for grace. Keep on, Jen–you are a blessing to all of us!

    Janet in No. Va

  28. Kate Wicker @ Momopoly

    Yet another excellent post. I often blame my impatient outbursts on my being tired. But it's no excuse. (Not that I shouldn't make more of an effort to get more sleep and realize I'm only human and that sleep is a "need" and not just a luxury). My children deserve better. They deserve a mom who chooses patience even when it would be much easier to snap and just apologize for being grumpy out of exhaustion.

    Thank you for your honesty.


  29. Nicole {tired, need sleep}

    Oh wow, did I need to hear this today! Thank you so much for your honesty and insight. I'm hitting that red zone way too often lately and I feel like I'm repeating "I'm impatient, I've lost my temper" etc. every time I go to confession. I really need to work on this, and I'm so glad to know I'm not alone with this struggle. Thank you again so much!

  30. Adam Heine

    This is an incredible post. Every parent should hear this.

    My wife and I take in orphans here in Thailand, and some of them come in angry. While my anger is sometimes effective with my own children, I've learned it only makes the other children more angry. And it hurts the most important thing: our relationship.

  31. Weird Unsocialized Mom

    I have only one word to say about this post: Ouch!

    (Okay, since you don't know me and it *may* not come across like I meant it…translation: You've just really stepped on my toes, big time, but I needed to hear it. Thanks.)

  32. Kathy

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I needed to hear this. Not only that I'm not the only impatient mom out there, but the way out. One of those things where I kinda know the solution, but need a good, hard nudge to get there.

    I'm printing this out and posting it on my bathroom mirror.

  33. Agnes Regina

    Wow. Thanks a lot. I too struggle very hard with patience with my younger siblings and my students, and your reminder that we can decide to be patient is a big help! Thank you Jen!

    to Sara: Patience comes not from the Latin word "to receive", but, more tellingly, from the Latin Pati, "To Suffer". It's another thing to think about.

  34. Laura@LifeFaithHomeSchool

    Oh yes, I'm so with you on this! Especially the 'follow-through'. I really appreciate the idea that yelling = laziness. That is something I'm trying to work on as well. I just had the amazing experience of being alone with my three sons (3 age 5 and under) and not losing my cool for two days! To me, that was beyond a major victory, and I give God the glory — because I'm just not that good! But also, I've stumbled majorly in the last few days since being home….So, it certainly takes time to build that virtue.

  35. Twice Blessed

    Again, you touched this point so beautifully. I, too, struggle with patience and the urge to externalize my feelings and letting everyone around know how much I struggle sometimes.

    Recently, my children have become of the age where neighborhood children come over to play. Having other children or parents around in the house has really make me more atune to how I come off. I still enforce the rules of our household even with children who are guests but is a much more toned down way.

    I should treat my children this way all the time and not just when their friends are over.


    Started reading your blog a few weeks ago, you have my full attention because of your topics and a sincere, convincing manner of writing. God bless!

    Liturgy of the Hours

  37. Bonnie

    You have no idea how much I needed to read this today.

    God Bless.

  38. 1220924430s30655

    Thank you for writing this… it popped into my head at a moment when it was needed. *sigh* If it were easier it wouldn't be worth it…

  39. Adrienne

    "This experience has made me start to wonder if maybe one of the biggest things that differentiates the saints from the rest of us is simply the willingness to face head-on the reality that, with God's help, being a saint really is a matter of choice." LOVED this statement. Eye opening.

    And such a good reminder to keep myself in line!

  40. Amanda

    Thanks again for another word fitly spoken! I needed that reminder.

  41. Julie

    You really hit the nail on the head. I needed to hear this–I've been losing my temper with my young children far too often lately. A good yell sure is cathartic, but I can and should do better. You managed to make me feel not alone in this struggle, convict me, and encourage me. Thank you.

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