It’s been about three years since the day at the park when I realized my daughters were lacking a vital, a crucial, an indispensible piece of knowledge. I don’t know how we’d missed it—these kids knew Tennyson before they could read and discussed the periodic table of the elements over dinner. (Okay, so we had a placemat with the periodic table on it. Still. We did discuss it. As in: "No, dear, we don’t smush peas on helium.") They’re bright kids, well-educated kids, but there was a giant hole in their education and it was the kind of hole that left an opening for serious pain. Literally.
See, we were at the park, as I said, and a bunch of kids were playing ball not far away. Suddenly a cry rang out: "DUCK!" Every person in the vicinity ducked out of the way of the large ball hurtling toward our group. Except my kids. All three of them (there were only three at the time) LOOKED UP AT THE SKY. I kid you not. "Where?" cried Jane. "Is it a mallard?"
Is it a mallard. The kid knew her times tables at age seven but had no clue that when someone hollers "duck," you get your head out of the way. When I stopped guffawing, I decided I’d better rectify that little oversight right quick. Back at home, I put the kids through a bit of boot camp. I figured while I was at it, I might as well throw in some other quick-response commands. I lined up the three little girls, ages eight, five, and two, and drilled them in Duck, Hit the Deck, and On Your Feet Maggot. It was a smashing game and we played it every day for a week. They made mighty giggly little soldiers but they got the point and I felt reasonably comfortable out taking them back out to dangerous places such as the park.
At some point I added another command, and for something that started out as a whim, it has turned out to bring immense peace and pleasure to my home. It had occurred to me that one of my biggest pet peeves was calling one of the kids and having her yell back, "Wha-at?" instead of coming to SEE what because if I’d wanted a conversation of shouts, I’d have hollered what I wanted in the first place.
I remembered what Charlotte Mason has to say about habit-training, how a mother should pick one habit at a time to cultivate in her children. Start with a bad habit that vexes you, Miss Mason says (somewhere; I no longer remember which book—probably all of them), and devote a period of several weeks to replacing it with a good habit. This is the best parenting advice I’ve ever encountered. Such a simple principle: instead of punishing for the inappropriate behavior, you take the time to develop the behavior you want to see.
Of course my children didn’t know what kind of response I wanted when I called out their names: I’d never bothered to explain it. Did I just expect them to instinctively know that the "whaaaaa-ut" hollerback drives mothers up the wall? When I examined the situation, I understood that I’d never given much thought myself to what kind of response I’d prefer. I just got annoyed by the one I didn’t prefer.
So after the Duck drills, I started working on the "what to do when I call your name" routine. And oh my goodness has it been a pleasure to see it in action these past three years. By now it’s completely automatic. I call a name and the child in question cries out, "Coming!" Simultaneously she leaps to her feet and runs to wherever I am, landing before me with a "Yes, Mom?"
It’s marvelous. Maybe the script isn’t your cup of tea but I truly love it: the quick response, the way I can take it for granted that all I have to do is say a name and the needed child will appear before me—with no irritation, no resentment. It’s all automatic; we hardly notice it anymore; it’s simply what one does. It is, in fact, a habit.
Habits (good and bad) are catching. Wonderboy has picked up the routine too, without our doing anything to teach it. In fact, he’ll see your "coming!" and raise you one—half the time I holler out for Rose or Beanie, the boy will chime in his own "Commmmm-ee!" in chorus with theirs. Sometimes he just stands at the bottom of the stairs barking out his sisters’ names and supplying their responses for them. Or maybe he just thinks their names are Rosecoming and so forth.
I know the drill-sergeant routine is a little hackneyed, but it’s been a most successful means of following Charlotte Mason’s habit-training advice. Very Mary Poppins-esque, really: the silliness of the drills (nothing says fun like calling your children maggot) is the spoonful of sugar, far more palatable than the pill I used to be, scolding them for not coming when I called. Kids pick up an awful lot by osmosis, but not everything. Just ask my little birdwatchers. No, dear, it isn’t a mallard. It’s a soccer ball and it’s about to give you a concussion. Now DUCK!