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?


Is This All?

Is this all God intends me to be? All body, creating and bearing, loving and serving? Wiping tears and dirty bottoms, serving meal after meal. Teaching and re-teaching the basic lessons of life: be kind, love your enemies, honor your parents, and worship the Creator. Work so important and so encompassing that I feel overwhelmed by its high demands and yet trapped in claustrophobic tightness by my little audience and limited subject matter.

I dream of directing government policy projects with huge objectives that improve the life of millions, of being somebody and using my mind more than my body. I am light years away from that vision. Yet stopping to reflect, I realize that I do lead according to Biblical principles. My audience of children may be limited, but my influence over them is far greater than I could ever have with any constituents.

The work done here at home really matters – yielding tremendous consequences for all eternity. For what happens here day in and day out – these routines and behaviors that we practice, the books that we read, the conversations that we hold – form who we are and inform what we do when we go into the world. It is in this present, each messy moment of it, that we shape characters, form imaginations, decide to follow Christ, and encourage our children to do the same.

Though the work may seem small, it is not so, for we are entrusted with the care of eternal souls. Whether you find yourself here unexpectedly or on purpose, and whether you really like the work or you really don’t, I encourage you to live in this present moment that touches eternity. May we be faithful in these not-so-little things.


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.



Letters to Ivan · Reorienting Myself

Examining the Heart

Last week my eldest very seriously announced to me, “Mama, I have one problem in my life.” “Son,” I said, “Please tell me about your problem.” “Well, I love Jesus a lot. But I love people the same amount.” My son’s awareness of his own heart and the need he felt to love God more without knowing how encouraged my own self-examination. Is my “one problem in life” needing to love God more? Do I prioritize this goal above house projects, mothering goals, and career aspirations? With a sickening feeling, I confess that I do not. Lord, please forgive me and help me to put you first.



In Captivity until Such a Time as This: What I learned from Joseph’s Story

Joseph was a slave and in prison for a total of 13 years until the right moment when God would use circumstance, location, and timing to elevate Joseph to being the Egyptian King’s primary assistant. It took being sold, bought, and imprisoned to place Joseph in the right place at the right time. God did not remove Joseph from his difficulties, but was instead withJoseph in the midst of them. I doubt God’s presence made Joseph any more enthusiastic about his doleful circumstances, but it did create opportunities for Joseph to trust God more and it gave purpose to Joseph’s trials.

Sometimes I feel imprisoned. My motherhood and homemaker responsibilities often leave me exhausted both physically and mentally, and culminate in me not sleeping well at night, which further exacerbates the exhaustion issue. Any breaks or nap times are filled with making dinner, laundry, and cleaning the house. Children need and I give all day long. My time is not ever my own and I feel defined by what I do rather than who I am or desire to be.

All this is not bad. It is, simply, my life at this stage. Many times beautiful moments pop-up in the middle of the mundane like tulips from the snow. Watching my eldest son hold hands with his younger sister and witnessing the dancing delight of my second’s eyes as he makes his little brother laugh are priceless treasures. Teaching moments abound and I rejoice that I get to be there with my kids. I get questions about anything from “Why is a truck not a motorcycle?” and “Do we get to keep our baby brother?” to “What makes lightening?” and “Where do we put used tea bags?”

Despite such wondrous moments, I feel my dreams eliminated by the very beings that I love and would give everything to nurture. I hear Chesterton’s rebuke in the back of my mind (paraphrased), “Why should I want to be something to everybody when I can be everything to these four somebodies?” I do not have an answer. Something inside me dreams so big to do things outside the home even as it just as stubbornly persists in not granting the primary care of my children to anyone besides my husband and myself. And so, I sometimes feel imprisoned by the very good life that God has given me.

When I read about Joseph, I realize that God has a plan for the perceived prison of my present. He has a plan now, and He will have a plan for me when the all-consuming purpose of my present diminishes to the past. Will I trust Him with that future state, to put me in the right place at the right time in the right circumstances to, perhaps not be the right-hand assistant to the president, but to do something else pretty cool? It is a question and challenge that I must ask myself everyday.