Breakfast at Midnight

February 2, 2008

It wasn’t until we were all seated around the breakfast table that we heard the story.

The truth is, I sleep so soundly, that I never heard what had happened.

But Margie did.

It was just after midnight when she woke up to a rather strange night sound.

At first, she could not be sure, but as the clouds of sleep left her mind and she listened more closely, she could distinctly hear the sound of footsteps in the kitchen.

Of course, Margie’s first inclination was to reach over and rouse me with a warning that someone was in the house. But then, she noticed another noise. Had someone just opened the cupboard and got a mixing bowl out?  Now it sounded like drawers were being opened and spoons, measuring cups, and the Bosch attachments were coming out!

What was going on?

Margie decided to investigate on her own. Sliding out of bed, she went upstairs.

The whole of the dining room and kitchen were ablaze with lights. The ongoing sounds of food preparation could be heard as faithful and diligent hands reached for this spice, that bucket of flour, and another scoop of sugar.

“Esther!  What are you doing up?”

Without even a flinch or a glance in the direction of my astonished wife, our wonderful 10-year-old daughter replied over her shoulder, “Making breakfast Mom. I thought we’d have some lemon poppy seed muffins.”

Silence.  Margie didn’t know what to say.

At last, Esther, sensing that something was amiss, turned around and looked at Margie.

“What’s the matter, Mom?”

“Well, it is 12:18 in the morning. I’m just surprised that you are up already.”

“WHAT?  It can’t be!  I set my alarm for 5:30am and it just went off a little bit ago,” Esther returned in disbelief and shock.

“No, really, look at the microwave clock.”

Sure enough, 12:19 glowed brightly on the face of the clock.  With a somewhat sheepish grin Esther set everything down and walked over to Margie. “Well, Mom, I guess I can finish this in the morning. Let’s go to bed.”

We later discovered that earlier that day, her clock had been unplugged by our rather curious 2 year old. Esther had plugged it back in and reset the clock… but not the alarm, which remained stubbornly at 12:00 a.m.

For the past 3 months before the preparations for the midnight breakfast, Esther had taken  over the responsibility to make breakfast each morning. And true and faithful as ever, she had simply jumped out of bed and got to work when the alarm went off.

Margie and I reflected on that experience over the next few days.  What had caused a 10-year-old girl to jump out of bed at midnight, in the middle of the winter and cheerfully go about doing her chores?

Besides the fact that this precious daughter of ours is an angel, we have come to several conclusions:

1.    High Expectations – Margie and I have always made the assumption that our children are wonderful, responsible, and obedient. And we have never let their temporary shortcomings prove us otherwise. We expect the best out of them and tell them so in plain, unmistakable terms. Not only that, but we send that message to them through our actions and by holding them accountable to high levels.  If a job is not done right – they feel our disappointment, “We expected more than this sloppy job out of you.  Will you please do it right – the way we know you can?”  And when they meet or exceed our expectations (as they usually do) we praise them lavishly, “Great job!  You did awesome!  Really, this is incredible!  But, it is nothing more than we expected… we knew you could do it all along.”

2.    Freedom to Rise… or Fall – With that expectation, we give them the freedom to rise or fall, to win or fail, to succeed or wallow in mediocrity.  But, no matter how they perform, they know it was their baby, their stewardship. The tasks and jobs we give them are not just perfunctory jobs to keep them busy. We make sure that they are essential aspects of running the house and keeping this large family alive. Like making breakfast. If we don’t eat, life is pretty uncomfortable.  And Esther knew that. She knew deep inside that we were all counting on her.  Hyrum knows the same thing about taking the garbage out. Joshua feels that pressure when the dishes need to get washed and put away. They all feel the weight of responsibility. They all have their stewardships. They all are left to do their duties as best they can and as they see fit.  They LOVE the pressures of duty, responsibility, and a family dependence on their actions.

3.    Side-by-Side Training – The freedom and responsibility that is heaped on their shoulders is not without training and love. In fact, in the beginning, when they are first given those assignments, we work very closely and repeatedly by their sides. Esther learned to make muffins by helping Margie do it dozens of times, with more and more of the work slowly being transferred to her.  The knowledge to make a perfect pancake from scratch (a feat she now does effortlessly and with great skill) came from working with me repeatedly over hot skillets. Joshua, Jared, and Hyrum handle every aspect of keeping four goats, 25 chickens, and 2 bulls alive and healthy without even a word of supervision from me because we have worked for hours on end in the barn together.  We have found that working closely with our children and slowly transferring duties to them, works miracles that barking orders at them can never accomplish.

As parents, we sometimes catch glimpses of the growth and learning of our children. We find unusual moments when the lessons we have endeavored to impress on their hearts come shining through with a strength and glory that causes our hearts to burst with pride and joy.

Breakfast at midnight was one of those moments for Margie and I.

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Stopwatch Parenting

January 10, 2008

“CODE RED!!!!!!! CODE RED!!!!  EVERYONE ON THE COUCH IMMMMMEDDIIAATELY!!!!!”

They couldn’t see my face, but I was smiling.  The top-of-my-lungs shouts continued to echo throughout the house and the yard.

The response was immediate… soon I could hear feet pounding heavily on the stairs, down the hall, across the kitchen and from back in the library.  And the shouting!

“Hurry up guys!  Come on! Dad wants us! This is a code red!  Come on!  HURRRRYYYYY”

Combined with my cries, the ruckus was deafening – and effective.

Within no time at all, there they sat, all 7 of them (Sariah, at 4 months old, as yet has been officially excused from coming on the ‘Code Red’ alert… though I’ve considered modifying that policy… after all can’t one of the older ones bring her in?  hehe).

Faces glowing, chest heaving from the run, feet fidgeting, and eyes twinkling with a mixture of excitement and a tiny sparkle of dread… what was it going to be this time?

Looking down on them, my heart just about burst!  What a wonderful bunch of children I have!

“Ok, everyone, I’ve divided the house into 3 sections:  Section one – library, bathroom, dressing room.  Section two – hall, dining room, kitchen. Section three – living room, office, hall, back bathroom.

“Here’s the deal:  The house is a MESS (pig pen really) and I won’t stand for it another minute! (This with a wink and a smile)  I’m going to set the timer for 25 minutes and everyone is going to start in the library.

“If you get section one done in that time, everyone will get $.50.  If you get sections one and two done, then we will go to the dollar movie tonight!  (This followed by shouts and a burst of excitement… we almost never go to the movies)

“If you get sections one, two and three done in that time, then we’ll add popcorn to that movie. Ready…”

Here I was intrupted by 3 little hands shooting up with questions.

“Do we have to vacuum?”  “No, the floors are OK”  “What about sweeping and mopping?”  “Sweep, yes… mop, no”  “Do we…”  “Sorry time for questions is up… Ready, set, gooooooooo!!!! Clock is ticking now!”

With that, the ultimate home cleaning machine exploded into action.  Away they went with an outrageous flurry and passion to meet the challenge and earn the coveted reward.

Margie and I retired to my office.  With no small delight, we enjoyed the sounds of Esther barking commands, Jared laughing, Joshua hustling about, Hyrum wondering when we were going to eat, and all of the above continually encouraging Isaac and Brigham in their short attention span labors.

“Done! Dad, we’re done!!!”

I looked at the timer – 19 minutes. Their best time ever.  VERY impressive.

“Ok gang. You’ve still got 6 minutes on the clock. I’m going to add 9 more.  If you can get the entire basement done in that time, I’ll give you a double bonus surprise. Goooooo!!!!”

And they did.  But they only needed the 9 minutes.  Total time: 28 minutes to total clean.

“Ok, everyone in the library.  Let’s inspect.  So, this is what you guys call ‘clean’.  Now let’s go through each room and inspect to see if your ‘clean’ matches my ‘clean’.

Going from room to room I had them point out what was done right and what could be improved upon.  For the most part they had done their duty wonderfully well.

During the review of the last 35 minutes of sheer energy and efficiency, I asked my children what had made the difference. After all, this same task, at other times, had taken them more than 2 hours of painful nagging and corresponding complaints.  Yet, here we had just cleaned the house, top to bottom in 28 minutes.  No nagging, no complaining, no fighting, no fussing.

What made the difference?

“It was the stopwatch dad. We were racing against the clock,” said Esther.

“And having a really cool reward,” added Jared.

Both were right.

Consider the Olympics.  When we as humans have clocks ticking and rewards awaiting, we rise up and do miraculous things.

Parenting and family life is no different.  Timing, tracking, rewarding, encouraging, and playing… it all puts the purpose back into parenting and the joy back into family life.

So, is your stopwatch handy?  On your mark, get set, gooooooooooo!!!!!!!


Missing Pants and Real Men

January 4, 2008

With a no small effort, I steeled myself to what would come next.

Looking at the black bag next to me, I knew that my sons would soon discover that our agreement was a serious one.  Though I did not see them, my ears followed them past my office, down the hall, and into the bedroom.

Silence.  Then rustling through drawers and laundry baskets.  Silence… thoughtful silence.

“Dad… mom… where are my pants?  Where is my shirt? I can’t find my shoes! Where is everything?”

I dropped my head and a small, sad smile crept over my face.  This was not going to be easy – that accounted for the sadness, but I felt deep inside that it would solve the problem – hence the smile.

“Son, come on in here,” I called.

I didn’t say a thing as he walked into the office, only pointed to the black bag.  Looking down, there was a flash of confusion, followed by a dawning of remembrance that spread into understanding.

A few days before, we had talked about the chaos of the dressing room.  In our house we have the washing and drier in a large room that also has all of the boy’s dressers.  It makes life infinitely easier on Margie when doing laundry because all dirty clothes, dressers, and cleaning equipment are in one handy location.

But it also means that five boys are constantly coming and going, changing clothes… and leaving enormous messes, compounded by the one location thing.

We gathered the family together and discussed how to handle this pigpen free-for-all.  Mutually, we had agreed that if clothes were left uncared for on the floor, then they would be confiscated… become victim to the magic parenting act of dropping it into a large black plastic bag. The only way to redeem a piece of clothing was to do an extra bit of work around the house or yard.

For the first few days, the fear of losing clothes had kept the room reasonably clean.  But then came that fateful moment when, consciously or subconsciously, they each decided to test the resolve of their parents and validity of the agreement.

“No dad!  I have to have those clothes right now!  I promise, I won’t leave them out again, just let me have them… please!” (this with a deadly charming look of pleading, mixed with pity, mixed with a cry for mercy)

“Does it really matter?  Just give the boy his clothes. Who cares if the room is a disaster zone? That’s just the way children are.  You’re being too tough here.”  These were the thoughts running through my head as he bore down on me with those big brown, sad puppy dog eyes.  It was almost more than I could bear.

But then reason snuck back in.  “If you give in now, your promises, agreements, and authority will be lost for now and maybe irreparably damaged for the future.  There are too many lessons at stake here… far more than a clean room.  Integrity, honesty, the power of an agreement and keeping your word, respect for authority, etc… the list goes one. No matter how tough it is, you’ve got to hold firm on your word.”

“You bet son!  I’d love to give all this back to you!”  (Pause for effect… his eyes glowing in triumph!)  “That is, just as soon as you clean out the car and mop the floor for the extra jobs you agreed to.”

Arrrggggg!  Victory was turned to sulking, frustration, and grumbling.

“Sorry, son.  You agreed and you broke your word.  You’ll have to be a man and keep your end of the bargain by submitting to the punishment.”

And he did.

Since that day, we have had to bring out the black bag on a few more occasions, but it is infrequent and the redemption work is done quickly and willingly.  The room has been upgraded to “moderately clean, most of the time”, and downgraded from a nuclear warfare zone.

But, more importantly, we see our boys turning into men of integrity, commitment and honesty.

And having real men for sons is WAY better than a clean room… and having both is the best of all.


The Black Eye

November 29, 2007

By the second day, the large goose egg just above Esther’s eyebrow was hardly noticeable.

It kinda surprised me considering the hammer end of a large claw hammer had hit her pretty hard.  Esther was excited to see the swelling go down and the tenderness go away… and thought the worst of it was over.  But having seen a few black eyes in my day, I knew it had just begun.

The “attack of the claw hammer” happened on one of our Thursday Service Nights.  You see, about 3 months ago, we decided that a weekly service project would help all of us get out of the house, spend some quality family time, and reap the rewards of giving freely to others.  It has been a blast!

On this particular night, we were at a friend’s new house, helping them remodel.  It is an old house – built around the 50’s or so.  The walls were all lathe and plaster, reinforced with chicken wire.

Esther, with dust mask on, was going after the living room wall with a vengeance, when she got in a tug-of-war match with a section of wire.  In the end she won.  With a mighty wrench, the wire suddenly gave up its grasp on the wall, causing the hammer to jerk back and even more suddenly connect with her eyebrow.

Well, by the fourth day, the draining started… the large pool of black and blue blood that had collected above her lovely brow, began to ooze down… first into her eyelid… then taking her eye hostage… and then finally running in streaks of violet down her cheek.

The colorful display stayed for almost 2 weeks, standing as a monument to her willingness to serve selflessly and at the cost of personal injury.  Because, you know what?  The next Thursday, she was right back at that wall, hammering, pulling, and tearing with the rest of us.

Family service… give it a try… just watch out for the hammer.


Parenting In The Trenches

October 29, 2007

Technically, the little farm of our friend is not within Spanish Fork’s city limits. But we weren’t thinking of that on Friday afternoon as we got out of the car and walked down the steep hill to the lower garage.

I was the first one down and warmly greeted Nancy and Gerald who were using the tractor to move a 1 ton bale of grass hay off the massive haystack they had, just to the north of the garage. I chuckled as I thought how that haystack was wider, deeper, and taller than the first 3 houses Margie and I lived it. Well, with 15 horses and 4 cows, I guess she needed all that hay for the winter.

Looking back over my shoulder, I saw a chain of children making their way down the old railroad ties serving as steps down the hill. One had a rake. One had a pick ax. One had a shovel. The others were trailing along and laughing or talking. The image of Snow White’s seven dwarfs popped into my mind and deepened the joy I was feeling in that moment. And of course, the very vision of beauty and rapture herself came at the end of this long line of children.

“So, where do you want it?” I asked.

“Right across the road leading down to the barns… and I need it 18 inches deep. Sorry.” Nancy said.

“No problem! We’ll have it done in a jiffy.”

Well, as a matter of fact, it was a problem and certainly wasn’t done in a jiffy. But all the better for my purposes. Of course, we were not there to have a jolly visit. We were there to work. Both Nancy and Gerald are in their 70’s (maybe 80’s for all I know) and with no farm-hands, they manage all their projects by themselves… and some things they simply cannot do… like digging 18 inch ditches.

At first glance the road seemed to be a dirt road. But, actually, it was 2 inches of dirt covering 10 inches of old asphalt. And that is where the trouble started. As my pick ax slammed into the blacktop, my muscles groaned and my face split into a grin – this was going to be a lot of work for my boys. Over the next 2 hours, I swung the pick ax and they manned the shovels, clearing large chunks of asphalt, rocks, dirt, and gravel.

On their faces I could see the strain of physical labor and in their hearts I could see the transforming power of serving others without compensation or promised rewards.

Stopping for a break and a drink of water I saw Margie, Esther and Hyrum running down the hill. They had been up at the house raking leaves out of the yards. With a burst of excitement, Hyrum announced that they had already raked and scooped up more than 20 large black bags of leaves.

The signs of service were unmistakable on their faces as well.

Three weeks earlier before, we went down to Nancy’s farm to dig the trench and rake up leaves, we had a Family Council. The topic was giving of ourselves in service. The Council had decided that once a week – usually every Thursday – we would find a project to do for someone, and secretly if we could manage it.

Walking back up the hill that afternoon, I saw each of the children helping their buddy into the car. They talked pleasantly with each other, some holding hands, others with their arms around each other. No fighting, no bickering, no contention. There it was again… the home feeling.


Running With Chickens

September 24, 2007

Of course, not everyone sees it the way I do.

I simply call it “free range” – I’ve read that it helps improve egg quality, omega content, and increase the vitamins and minerals.

But the neighbors, especially the ones in the apartments next to us, don’t necessarily look on those long-ranging chickens with the same affection and appreciation as our family does. In fact, over the past year we have had countless comments – and even a phone call or two, “Hey, did you know your chickens are wandering around the apartment complex?”

No kidding… they’re “FREE RANGE!”

Our immediate neighbor has donated more than one of his garden plants and decorative flowers to the health and well-being of our growing flock. And, in case you are wondering if flowers change the taste of the eggs… they don’t. He got fed up with it and finally put a fence with smaller links around his back yard. Lucky for the chickens, he only put a 3 foot high fence and the chickens, who roost at about 14 feet up in the barn rafters had no problem hopping over the fence and continuing their feast.

Sunday, while visiting with some of the children from the apartments, I was even informed that several of those wild roaming hens were trying to check the mail – or at least had gotten up on top of the apartment’s mail box and were pecking, cackling, and producing biological waste products. Humm, the mailbox is about a block away from our property… that’s definitely “free ranging.”

But that is all about to change…

Now, it is not like I’m trying to keep chickens in a 20’x20’ backyard. I mean, we have almost 2 acres of property. But, it’s a funny thing… those blasted “free range” chickens seem to be magnetized to everyone else’s property and seemed compelled to go to great lengths to get into their properties. Well, at last, with winter coming on, I determined that enough is enough.

“At the crack of dawn tomorrow morning, we are going to rebuild the chicken coop and create a large-scale run that the chickens will never be able to get out of,” I declared to the children on Friday night.

So, Saturday, the sun peeked over the eastern mountains to find five of my children by my side in the barnyard huddled up and making plans for the incarceration of our hen colony.

“Joshua and Esther, dig through the scrap wood pile and find me three boards 7 feet long each – if they are longer, we’ll cut them down.”

“Jared, you and Tony (that’s the neighbor boy from one of the apartments who loves helping us work on the farm), you guys go round me up some more tee-posts. I think there are a couple by the cherry tree and then a few more back by the first gate.”

“Hyrum, get me the wire cutters, the nails, and the hammer.”

“Isaac, will you take this bowl into mom and then bring me out some water? We’ll need that too, before long… and HURRY! everyone – there is a good storm coming and I’d rather not do this project in the rain.”

So, off they went while I began measuring fencing and designing the run. Within a few hours we were digging holes for fence posts, making gates, pounding tee-posts, hanging chicken wire off the barn roof and generally working up a good sweat working on the project.

As I drilled the corners of the new gate together I looked up to see my children. Some were helping with the gate, others cutting baling wire, and other scooping manure into the wheelbarrow. The thrill of the moment was rich and satisfying. Into my mind came the scriptureal edict given to Adam and Eve when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden:

“In the sweat of they face shalt thou eat bread…”

I also thought of the scripture that says,

“Thou shalt not be idle; for he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer.”

And finally, the rather poignant wisdom from Proverbs that mixes no words:

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:”

In all of these work is the central theme. I couldn’t help wonder to myself if I was really teaching them the values of hard work ethic – or, as Solomon puts it – the ways of the ant.

Maybe I was. Maybe, that morning as we were running around with the chickens, we were all learning a little more about getting the job done, personal sacrifice, self sufficiency and the thrill of straining your muscles and bending your arm for a worthy cause.

Maybe, in years to come, the day with the chickens would be long forgotten, but the principles embedded in my children would carry them through the tough times that lay ahead. No doubt, one day they would be tasked with raising children, providing for a family, doing an honest day’s work for an employer, serving others when it was uncomfortable, or giving of their time when they really didn’t want to.

Maybe, just maybe, in those times when life called on them to give their all, the lessons they learned today will empower them to rise up and claim the greatness they were born to inherit.

So, while not everyone – very few in fact – can have 2 acres, 50 chickens, and 40 apartment residents to serve as a peanut gallery, I can’t help but believe that all parents everywhere can find a way to have their own “day with the chickens” and teach their children how to work.