I think one of the things I want most from people when I’m learning from them is patience. Patience is a deep quality that comes out in body language, words, and the time we spend together. It’s something I can feel immediately, much like understanding. In fact, I think patience may be impossible without understanding. Patience and understanding are these skills that many of the world religions have devoted their whole mission to acquiring. Everyone wants it; few know how to give it when it counts.
It wasn’t until I became familiar with the writing of William Glasser that I began to understand how to practice patience with others. His writing showed me that others likely interpret my attitude as an attempt to control them when I become impatient. People don’t generally like to be controlled so they rebel against it. Patience sends the message that I can wait until they’re ready. There’s no hurry. Whatever we’re doing is important enough to do it right, even if it’s not right now.
Most of my work involves tutoring and teaching elementary and middle school students. If ever there were people that needed patience it’s the children who are not yet mature enough to practice it.
How Can I Be Patient While My Child Isn’t Working?
I’ve been here before. I’ve assigned a task and the student just stares. What is actually going on in their brain? I don’t pretend to know. But I do know that if they don’t trust me, they won’t tell me what’s going on.
I’ve simply accepted the scary idea that it’s not my education. It’s theirs. I say “scary” because educators and parents act as if it’s their own education that is at stake. If students don’t do it, and it’s a truly useful learning activity, it’s the student’s loss. I tell them exactly that too. But I don’t add a layer of sarcasm or shame (control) to my language. I simply tell them that when they choose to not work they may be missing out on valuable practice or understanding. If I’ve built some trust with them then they are very likely to take my information seriously and attempt the task. If they don’t trust me yet, they may push back a little.
How Can I Be Patient When They Push Back?
Students push back to invite you into a power struggle most of the time. A power struggle is a very useful way to distract from the actual work. I can’t think of anyone really winning in a power struggle. There is always a winner, but then the loser develops resentment toward the winner and the next power struggle is more difficult. Janet Lansbury‘s writing helped me take this patience to the next level. Her expertise and practice is primarily with infants and toddlers but it’s extremely practical for understanding behavior in school age children too. My students have freedom of speech around me – notice that freedom is the opposite of control. They can call the work stupid, call me names, make a mess, refuse to work…pretty much anything but try to hurt me or someone else. I remain calm, show them that I understand their emotions, explain what I’m willing to do about it, if anything, and we move on. My patience for their outbursts is an incredibly calming resource. I could just say “calm down” but then I’m trying to control them again. Quite honestly, if them acting out a bit is going to help them deal with the frustration, that’s a lot healthier than some of the other ways that kids try to deal with it.
I was working with an eighth grader on math and he was doing something that was exceptionally challenging for him. He started to get frustrated and exclaimed, “Ergh! I hate math!” The immature and controlling part of me would like to just say, “Man up, quit your fussing and just do it. It’s not that hard.” But his frustration didn’t bother me and I think it was comforting to him. I simply replied, “I know. Math is frustrating when you don’t understand it. If you keep on trying I think you’ll be able to get it but if you give up then you probably won’t. Do you want to give up or do you want to keep trying?”
I’ve rarely heard a student choose to give up. They don’t like that option when it’s posed that way. I think it’s because it’s their choice. But, when they’re told they’re not allowed to give up (again, controlled) then that’s the only choice they want.
What Do I Do When My Child Won’t Focus?
Again, I make my work about choice. Learning isn’t a straight path even though text book publishers would like us to think otherwise. If my student wants to follow a rabbit trail, I let them. Chances are there is an interesting connection in the journey. If I constantly try to corral (control) their focus, what will they do when I’m not around? Students need to learn how to bring themselves back to focus when their mind has wandered. If they’re never allowed to do it on their own, how will they learn it? But as parents, we tend to believe that if I tell them enough times then they’ll just do it. It’s not the case, and when it is they’re doing it just to shut us up not because they see value in it.
I can see a wandering brain almost instantly and I just wait. The student gets this look in their eye and I can tell they’re thinking about something else. Out of curiosity I might ask, “You started thinking about something else didn’t you?” If it’s a brand new student they may be apologetic and try to refocus but if they’ve gotten to know me then they may take a moment to tell me what they were thinking about. We share the moment and then their mind is amazingly refreshed and they’re ready to work again. These moments make working on school work, which can be a real drudgery, a little easier and sometimes even enjoyable.
Patience might be the opposite of control. Amazingly though, when I exercise patience with my students, I do start to see control…but it’s self-control. The student starts learning how to control their own actions. And that’s what this whole “raising kids into adults” is all about. Right?