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?


There are Always Things to Do and People to Love

It is four in the morning and I am typing, invigorated by the ideas mulling in my head and apple cider vinegar-honey tea. There are lots of things that I might be doing right now (such as sleeping). When one has four kids and a husband, there are always things that I could do but that would mean that the steeped thoughts would never pour out and life for me would be defined by chaos rather than order.

Life and work for me involves a lot of doing. After rising at 4:45am for some quiet time and a run, I dress and make breakfast before waking the kids. They rise at 7:00am and the day begins in earnest. We are never “busy,” for to me busyness implies that I am caught in the activity without regard for people. If my doing means that I have no time for people, than I lose the purpose of all my work. I “do” to create opportunities to love people – family, friends and neighbors, my husbands’ colleagues, and strangers. We are NOT busy, but we are always doing something. For my kids, there are acorns to gather and bikes to ride, outdoor places to explore, books to read, pages to color, structures to build, and questions to ask. Oh, the questions!

On an ideal day, the older kids play quietly or nap in their room from noon to three, while the youngest naps from noon to two. This period is mama’s opportunity to do housework without interruption and maybe spend a few minutes reading or napping herself. It remains far, however, from being a solid two-hour block of time. This weekend provided a typical example. After washing dishes and beginning a load of laundry, breaking to assist two older children with going to the bathroom, I sat down to touch the piano with more than a feather duster. Playing fifteen minutes revealed years’ lack of daily practice, but this felt good nonetheless. Removing to the couch to read, I had turned my first page when my husband entered the room and needed to talk to his best friend. Break again. Minutes later I greeted my precious baby, who nursed and then joined me for dinner preparations. The nature of my “quiet” time made me laugh.

A daily routine brings order to what could otherwise be chaos. It sets a rhythm to life in which my kids can do the unexpected while having a sense of what will happen next. In theory it gives me time too – time that I need to be a human being rather than a human doing.

In a similar way, words bring order to the confusion in my mind. They help me thoughtfully live even in the most mundane of activities (think washing dishes), because words help me bring meaning to what I do. For example, I can remind myself that a house is a tool that is cleaned to be used, not an ornament to showcase. The kids do not “mess up” my tidied house, but use it for play and learning. So when I feel consumed by the doing, when two hours shrinks to two minutes, and my thoughts become muddled, expressing experiences and feelings in words helps me put everything in perspective.  I remember the gift that this life is and I capture its joy.