- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

I have never been attuned to athletic events, but I recently became fascinated by the amazing Baltimore Ravens. Watching them on the field during the Super Bowl, I could see the tremendous amount of training each player had invested to develop the skills that had brought him to that point.

Any great accomplishment requires two things: discipline and freedom. To become a great athlete, one must understand and work within the rules of the game. Hours of hard work are needed to master each skill. During the game, the players are called upon to exert themselves past ordinary standards. They must push their bodies beyond tiredness, and they must endure pain and sometimes even injury.

The conditions are so grueling that most of us wouldn't even consider such a lifestyle. Why do athletes do it? It's because they receive joy from playing the game and playing it well. We are all in it for the fun.

All education follows this pattern. We need to learn the rules and practice the skills, and finally we achieve greater freedom and joy from the process.

I happen to love writing songs and poems. It's not easy to work within the rigid structure of meter and rhyme, but once you get into it, it becomes very exciting. Finding just the right words, combining images in an unusual way, building upon a certain metaphor it's a real joy for me.

The strange thing is that no matter how strong the structure is, it creates a framework that allows even greater freedom. That is what makes it enjoyable. When I look at a finished piece and it fits together and makes the reader feel something new, that satisfies some inner hunger for me.

In home-schooling, as in life, it's necessary to develop a certain structure. Certain rules need to be practiced over time for understanding to develop. No one, not even Einstein, could go from ignorance to understanding without traveling all the steps in between.

Most successful home-schooling families develop a set of rules that they follow. They may study from a certain time to a certain time. They may vary the hours but always complete a certain number of pages of work a day. They probably have rules about time spent on the computer or on phone calls or on nonacademic reading. Some remove the television from the home, limit the intake of sweets or insist on a certain number of "fresh air" hours so the children lead an active outdoor life.

Such rules may seem tough, but they actually allow the children to be free. The rules act like boundaries, laying out portions of time or energy that should be spent in certain endeavors. We humans are creatures of habit, and we like to know what is expected of us. It lets us relax.

When firm structures are in place, it's easier to feel clear about one's progress and accomplishments. Such structures also provide a way to know how to excel. Once you realize how growth is accomplished, it becomes obvious that with more effort, success can be attained more quickly.

What would happen if, within a certain sport, the rules kept changing? What if a foul were only sometimes a foul? What if you could argue with the referee and not receive a penalty? What if one team had one set of rules but another team didn't? Not only would chaos result, but no one would have any fun. Something is fun only when everyone knows what the rules are and plays by them. Only then can you say, "Oh, yeah, they did a great job. They deserved the trophy."

If we are going to be effective parents and teachers, we need to provide a sturdy, safe structure within which our children can learn. Rules are not stifling unless they are arbitrary and unfair. Of course, there shouldn't be different rules for different children, and the rules should have a clear division point between what is "in bounds" and "out of bounds."

For instance, if lunch hour is free time, don't try to sneak in some extra quizzing. For the rules to be useful, everyone must play by them. Also, don't insist on certain study hours one day and then blow off that rule the next. This makes the students feel uneasy. Work becomes negotiable. We don't like employees who don't come to their jobs on time or who leave early.

Teach children the value of time by making certain times sacred. If morning is study time, they will feel comfortable concentrating on their books every morning. Lunch time also should be sacred, and they will feel comfortable doing their non-study activities at that time.

The best way to teach this is to live it. Check your own activities and see if you are good about setting rules for yourself and sticking to them. Your self-discipline shows your children how to discipline themselves.

Also, it's good to set goals. Say, "By the end of the week, let's see if we can finish this." You don't have to nag, just say it and then work toward it. Believe it or not, children love to stretch beyond the norm. It's a chance for them to try and to excel.

When they do, be sure to make a big deal about it. I'm a firm believer in the value of bragging about children's victories. Who do you think is listening the hardest when you are trumpeting their success? They are. Then they have to live up to the positive record they are creating. You help them get a reputation for being successful, which in turn makes them feel like being more successful.

Don't be afraid to be a strong parent. The more you love, the more you'll find you need to create positive rules. Choose your rules well, because unfair ones will backfire. Children are born with a finely tuned sense of equity, and they know if they are being exploited or manipulated.

If you think of yourself as preparing them to navigate the uncertain currents of life, you'll realize that certain skills and habits will strengthen and protect them in the future. Working hard, correcting yourself and your work, taking responsibility, finishing each task these are proven habits of success.

You will be amazed how free everyone will be and how much fun you will experience by using a clear structure.

Consider the words of one of our nation's greatest leaders to a young man who asked him what was the best way to study law:

"The mode is very simple, though laborious and tedious," he wrote. "It is only to get the books and read and study them carefully. Begin with Blackstone's Commentaries, and after reading it thoroughly, say twice, take up Chitty's Pleading, Greenleaf's Evidence and Story's Equity, etc., in succession. Work, work, work is the main thing.

"Yours very truly,

"Abraham Lincoln"

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer living in Maryland.

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