Everything I needed to know about parenting, I learned from breaking my horse (almost)

When I was 11 years old, I spent a summer breaking my horse. In that process, I learned that there is no substitute for time. To train her into submission to my commands, I needed to show her again, and again, and again that following my directions brought treats, relief, and rest, while ignoring them did not. When my husband and I adopted a dog, we watched dog-training videos and read books on dog-obedience. The same theme emerged: there are no fast tricks to well-trained animals. Training takes huge amounts of invested time in regular teaching sessions, consistent consequences, and persistent reminders. There are no viable shortcuts.

The same is true with children (and ourselves, actually). In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell concluded that people reach proficiency or mastery of a subject after devoting 10,000 hours to that particular discipline. As a lover of statistics and the multivariate regression, I know that there are other factors affecting success or mastery. I agree with Gladwell, though, that 10,000 hours is a good starting point.

So what does that look like? 10,000 hours is more than 27 years when broken into an hour a day, or 18 years for an hour and a half a day.

When it comes to my kids, what virtues do I want to impart and how much time do I spend teaching them? I want my kids to extend mercy to people – not giving people what they earn or deserve. Imagine how many times I need to show mercy to them to teach this lesson. How many times do I give my three-year-old son stickers on the responsibility chart for simply attempting to be kind? How many times do I give hugs and sympathy to a hurting child who disobeys my warning about danger? (I reference small situations here, as I would always intervene in a situation if my child or someone else would be seriously hurt.)

One wise mother, who raised five successful adults, once encouraged me to imagine the type of person I wanted my then eight-month-old to be when he turned 18 years old, and do now what was necessary for him to be that person in the future. I am not talking about brainwashing or programming children here. As any mother will attest, free will is alive and well; there are no guarantees when raising children, who will choose for themselves. But think about how the life we make for our children predisposes them to certain habits or actions, particular enjoyments, and their view of the world.

What habits and character traits am I nurturing? If imagination and play are important (and I believe that they are), do I give my kids opportunities to imagine and play? If service is important, am I modeling that and inviting my children to take part with our time, talents, and resources? If I value knowledge of God, does how we invest our time every day reflect that priority?

As I write this at the end of a day, I am physically and mentally aware of how exhausted one becomes after a day of “playing.” Yet I urge us all to run the daily race with all the strength and resolve within us. Effective parenting requires lots of time, and quality time results from quantities of time. How we spend our time matters. What changes do you need to make to spend yours without regrets?

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