Down to the Wire

It's a scene from a novel that has always stuck in my mind. A rider in a horse-jumping contest has a certain amount of time to get his scared horse over a hurdle and to the end of the course. But the horse is terrified, and refuses to jump. So the rider stops, gets off, walks the horse around, rubs its nose, talks to it, while the seconds are ticking away. He waits until the last possible second, at which point the calmed-down horse jumps the hurdle and completes the course.

I think one of the reasons the scene stays with me is that it contains a profound lesson for parents. My son comes home from a great Sunday afternoon at a friend's house, facing the task of finishing a book and writing a book report before bedtime. Now there are more than enough hours to do the job, but he is in no mood to start. I know that if I push him, he will complain and balk. If sufficiently coerced, he will go through the motions of reading, but at such a slow pace that he'll never get through. It's just like the book, with the horse stuck at the hurdle and the seconds ticking away.

Like the rider, I have to help get him to the finish on time. So I use the same strategy. I suggest that we do other things for a while. We get something to eat. He puts on his roller blades to go back and forth to the kitchen. He shows me the tricks he had learned on a new video game. I read to him from a book we're in the middle of. I am very conscious of the time going by, but also see his mood beginning to shift. Then we alternate my reading aloud and him reading his book, and he finishes long before he would have had he been pushed from the start.

Having gotten over that hurdle, I'm ready for the next. "Great! Now you can zip through your book report and be done for the night." "Oh, no, Mom, not now.! I want to play!" Though the minutes are ticking away, there's still time. So he plays with his brother, then enlists my help in drawing three-dimensional rooms. At fifteen minutes before bedtime, the last possible moment, I call a halt. He whips through his book report in ten, and goes to bed a happy boy.

It really is a matter of timing and strategy. How much time do we have? What is making this child so balky? Will a period of time spent not attending to the task at hand make that task go easier? Will a child have time to finish a game he's absorbed in and be able to stop happily, if we wait till the very last minute before we have to go? Will taking three minutes to do something they want, when we have to be out the door in five, actually increase our chances of being on time? Will five minutes of snuggles and unworried, undivided attention remind them enough of how good and well-loved they are that they can succeed at a fast-approaching hard challenge?

Sometimes, it doesn't work. The hurdle is too big, the child's reluctance is too great, the time is too short. Those are the awkward times--when we have screaming or sullen children, harassed parents, incompleted jobs. And there are no right answers. We know our children, we know ourselves, and we know the hurdles, each of which is different. But as parents, we're often "down to the wire". Under pressure to get our children over a series of hurdles in a limited amount of time, our response is is often simply to transfer that pressure to them. And often it doesn't work. Maybe there are times when easing off, and focusing on their well-being, while not losing track of the time, will be the winning strategy.