Jodi quickly grabbed the big pot and held it under the kitchen faucet. As it started to fill with water, she mentally reviewed her timetable for the rest of the day:
2:30 – Get the cavatelli put together and in the oven with the delayed start turned on.
3:00 to 5:30 – The new employee from hubby’s store shows up for five hours of training.
5:30 – Cavatelli should be done so we can eat and get everything cleaned up during the one-hour break in training.
6:30 to 9:00 – Finish the last half of the training.
9:00 to ? – Plan school work for tomorrow and reconcile the bank statements.
Jodi shut off the faucet, put the pot of water on the stove, and cranked on the burner. Restlessly she thought, “No sense standing around here for fifteen minutes waiting for the water to boil. I’ll just grab a couple of minutes on the computer to add a paragraph or two to my next e-letter.”
Twenty-five minutes later Jodi’s daughter stuck her head in the office door and asked, “Mom, do you know anything about a pot of water on the stove? It’s been boiling for quite a while now.”
Jodi’s heart skipped a beat. The water! She dashed to the kitchen and lifted the lid to find that a good two inches had evaporated.
“Thanks, Karen, for letting me know,” Jodi told her daughter, adding more water to the pot. “I meant to stay at the computer for only a couple of minutes but lost track of time. I was working on the next e-letter.”
“No problem, Mom,” Karen answered, smiling. “So what’s the e-letter about?”
Jodi started to laugh. “Margin,” she replied.
You know what a margin is. It’s the space you leave around the edges of your paper when you’re writing or typing. The margin makes the page more readable and the process of reading more pleasant. It keeps the reader from being overwhelmed by a sea of words that spans edge to edge and top to bottom.
The same concept applies to your life. Margin is the space you leave around the events in your life. That space must be allotted purposely in order to prevent your being maxed out physically, emotionally, and mentally. In other words, schedule extra time into your day in between commitments. Leave yourself some margin.
If you need to take the children to a 10:00 appointment and it takes twenty minutes to get there, add ten minutes to get everybody ready and ten more minutes to get them all into the van. Let’s see, that would mean that you start getting ready at 9:20. Make it 9:15 for a little more margin.
Those extra ten minutes of getting ready allow for last-minute bathroom trips, diaper changes, lost shoes, and decisions about which toys to bring along for the ride. The extra ten minutes to get everybody into the van allows for those little discoveries that children make on the way: the ladybug, the ant trail, the neighbor’s dog that is passing by on the sidewalk. Without that extra time margin, you’ll be rushing and hurrying and frantically riding roughshod over the children. In fact, you’ll be more prone to react instead of to act intentionally.
Apply the same principle to getting supper ready. Allow yourself a nice extra margin of time so you’ll be able to respond appropriately to those interruptions that will inevitably come. When you’re frenzied and pressured, it’s easy to try to ignore conflicts between the children instead of recognizing and using those situations as teachable moments. Extra time releases you to put down the potato peeler and go help the two children learn how to share.
Here are just a few ways that margin can help you to be an intentional parent.
- Margin reduces stress and makes it easier not to parent by a default or survival mentality. Let’s face it, when you’re pressed for time and stressed out, it’s so easy to throw the kids in front of a video or to employ bribes or threats in order to get immediate action.
- Margin allows time for teachable moments. You want to “strike when the iron is hot,” that is, when the child has a pressing question and is motivated to find the answer — whether that question is about flowers, tying shoes, life after death, or vitamins. One of the biggest reasons that parents don’t look for good books for their children, or help their children learn to resolve conflicts Biblically, or teach their children home skills is because both the children and the parents are too busy. They have scheduled too many events and not enough margin.
- Margin makes it easier to “be Jesus” to your children. You have more time to consider how to respond the way Jesus would in the various situations that occur. Somehow I can’t picture Jesus telling our children in a raised voice, “Would you just get over here? We’re going to be late!”
- Margin emphasizes what is most important in your life: people, not things or activities. Especially when your children are young and take a long time to communicate their thoughts, you must allow for that unhurried attention that let’s them know you think they’re worth your time. And when your children are older, you need to be available at a moment’s notice for them to share their innermost thoughts when they’re ready to.
- Margin reduces fuzzy thinking. Your brain isn’t muddled by the tyranny of the urgent. Instead you can contemplate on what you want to do intentionally to teach and train your children to the glory of God. You have time to be creative, to pray and wait on God, to make well-thought-through decisions.
As you probably noticed in Jodi’s story above, multi-tasking is one of the biggest margin stealers. Society tells us that multi-tasking is a virtue. Don’t believe it! Add margin into your life by scheduling fewer events in a day, concentrating on one thing at a time, and allowing extra time to accomplish each task. You’ll find that you have more physical energy, more mental capacity, and more emotional stability. Move and think more slowly and deliberately — on purpose.
Will you ever have to hurry? Of course. But try to make stress the exception rather than the rule. Do you want to teach your children to dawdle? No. But don’t push and hurry them through life without providing ample opportunities and time to enjoy it with you. Too many people want deep, meaningful relationships but they try to squeeze them into little cracks in their schedules. Relationships take time — lots of unhurried, safe-guarded time.
Add more margin to your to-do list.
(Note: The names have been changed in the story above to protect the writer of this e-letter. [sheepish grin] Yes, it’s a true story.)
Q & A
Q: Margin sounds wonderful, but I can’t squeeze more time between my kids’ events. Their activities are scheduled too tightly: soccer drop-off at 3:30; piano drop-off at 4:00; put supper in the oven and run back to piano pick-up at 4:30; then soccer pick-up at 5:00; rush home for supper; youth group event drop-off at 6:30; . . . you get the idea.
A: Whew! I’m exhausted just reading about it! The only way you’ll get some margin is to eliminate most of those extra activities. Take steps now — the sooner, the better. You may be locked into some of them for a season, but do some serious rethinking so you will be prepared when you’re presented with the next “opportunity” for your child.
Whenever an activity is suggested ask yourself three important questions: (1) Which of our family goals will this activity help my child reach? (2) Can I think of an alternate way to help my child reach that goal without putting so much demand on my schedule? (3) How will this new activity and the resulting demand on our schedule affect all the members of our family?
The first question helps you keep a long-term mindset. Remember that the ultimate goal of raising children is to produce godly adults. All other ambitions should support that goal.
The second question helps you think creatively. It reminds you to evaluate society objectively and Biblically instead of slipping into a default-parenting mentality. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Just because lots of other children are participating in an activity doesn’t automatically make it best for your child. God will not call you to do something that can only be accomplished using worldly means. He will provide ample opportunities to train your children in the way He wants them to go. Your job is to trust Him enough to say no to the things that are less than best, depending on Him to bring along something better in His time.
The third question helps you consider the big picture: your whole family. Society conditions us to view the family as a group of individuals who happen to share the same house. But the family is a unit, a whole entity. What one does affects all the others. Family members are not segregated individuals. So when one family member wants to participate in an activity outside the family, a major consideration must be, how will this addition to our schedule affect the family as a whole? Who will have to ride with you as you play chauffeur? Who will miss good wholesome meals because you’re too busy to cook? Who will miss naps and then be scolded for being grumpy? How will the extra expenses affect the family budget? What extra expectations will this schedule put on Dad?
You get the idea. Be courageous enough to think through this whole extra-activity mindset deliberately. Contrary to what our culture tells us, extra activities are not the right of every child. In fact, many of them are simply ways for adults to control a child’s free time and his parents’ money. Ask and answer the hard questions and choose intentionally. If the answers to those important questions are not favorable, say no. You and your child (and your family!) will enjoy the margin.
Q: What about all the church activities I’m asked to help with? I feel guilty if I say no.
A: First, let’s talk about “all the church activities.” It’s unfortunate that many churches have bought into society’s emphasis on scheduled activities and programs as their primary effort to minister to people. I may ruffle a few feathers for saying this, but here goes: church activities do not automatically equal ministry. As we discussed in the October e-letter, ministry should be a lifestyle, and much of effective, everyday ministry flows from home skills.
Many Christians spend so much time running programs and activities at the church building that they never see their non-Christian neighbors, much less develop relationships with them in order to minister to them. Many Christian parents spend so much time at the church building working with other people’s children that they lose touch with their own children.
Your first God-given ministry is to your family. (Now we’re talking about the “feel guilty” part.) Did you catch that statement? Your first God-given ministry is to your family (Deuteronomy 6:4-7; 1 Timothy 3:5; Titus 1:6). All your volunteer effort at church-scheduled functions will mean nothing if you lose your child’s heart. Don’t sacrifice your family for any event or program.
Also, ask yourself how each additional event on your schedule will affect the individual members of your family. That question is valid for church-scheduled activities as well as for sports or music or social events. More than one young mother has shared with me how frazzled she was because she committed to help with a week of “children’s ministry” meetings. Her own child’s routines were completely upset as she dealt with his missed naps, late bedtimes, and hurried meals. Because of the upset schedule, her child had more discipline issues, but she didn’t have the time or opportunity to deal with them in an intentional manner because she was in a hurry to get somewhere or was in the middle of a structured activity with other children waiting on her. With other mothers and children watching, she felt pressured for her child to behave in a stellar fashion even when he was in the midst of this turmoil. It seems like that experience would fall under the category of “provoking your children to wrath” rather than nurturing them (Ephesians 6:4).
Parents, please don’t say yes to church-scheduled activities simply by default or from guilt. Use the same three questions outlined in the answer above: (1) Which of our family goals will this activity help my child reach? (2) Can I think of an alternate way to help my child reach that goal without putting so much demand on my schedule? (3) How will this new activity and the resulting demand on our schedule affect all the members of our family? Go to God and ask Him about each activity, program, or event that you’re urged to participate in. Find out what He wants you to do at this season of your family’s life. And be careful not to confuse His gracious direction with human expectations.
On the flip-side, be sure you are investing time and effort in everyday ministry — tasks in which your child can wholeheartedly work side-by-side with you for the benefit of others. One of your family goals should be to teach your child to focus on Spirit-directed activity that meets needs, not just calendar-directed activity.