When one of my daughters was around 12 years old, we faced a significant problem with her motivation and quality of work. Her “school” days went pretty much like this: She would get up, do everything on her checklist with as little effort as possible (often being “finished” by 10:00 a.m.), and then spend the rest of the day snacking and annoying everyone else in the house. When confronted about the quality of her work, she would counter, “I did it—what more do you want?” When it was pointed out to her that she was “finished” in a couple of hours and that perhaps she could have a bit more added to her checklist, an ugly, hormone-enhanced argument would ensue: “I’m already doing everything I have to. More wouldn’t be fair! How come you want to make my life miserable? I’m doing enough, okay? Can you just leave me alone?”

Sound familiar? If you have a large enough family, you’re likely to have at least one child who develops this attitude at some point, which might be appropriately termed “Hate of Learning” stage. The danger, of course, is that Mom and Dad start thinking evil thoughts such as “We’re failing her . . . maybe we should put her in a good school...of course, she wouldn’t necessarily spend any more time studying, but at least she’d be out of our hair for a while...maybe we just need to be more strict....” Such were the thoughts my wife and I entertained at that time. Fortunately, I came across a possible strategy that involved neither sending her to school nor using a heavy-handed approach.

Late one night, driving home from a business trip, I was listening to a talk titled “The Seven Keys of Great Teaching” given by Oliver DeMille (author of A Thomas Jefferson Education). I had heard this talk many times before and thought I understood it well—all except one part. Six of the seven keys made perfect sense to me:

  • Classics, not textbooks
  • Mentors, not professors
  • Quality, not conformity
  • Time, not content
  • Inspire, not require
  • Simplicity, not complexity
  • You, not them

I wasn’t necessarily implementing these keys perfectly, but I understood them and with a bit of success had been using these ideas with my children and students. However, the one I found enigmatic was “Structure time, not content.” What does that mean? What would that look like? How would one actually structure time? What about content?

And then it hit me. This was my exact problem with my 12-year-old daughter; I had been structuring her content, not her time! By giving her a checklist of scholastic tasks to accomplish each day, we had focused on the things she got done, not how she was using her time. Indeed, if I wanted her to progress from a “love of learning” phase to a “scholar” phase, I had first to get her out of “hate of learning” and teach her the value of time. Would it work to shift over from a checklist to a schedule? Couldn’t she procrastinate and manipulate that just as well? What would it look like in her life if we could somehow structure her time and not worry so much about content?

So after prayer and consultation with my wife (who was basically willing to try anything at that point), I sat down with said daughter and explained her new program: She would be responsible for studying four hours each day. Within those four hours, she would be free to study whatever she wanted to study—within certain parameters. I printed for her a time log whereon she would record her activity for each fifteen-minute block of time, starting from when she woke up until she had completed the four hours of cumulative study time. No more checklist; she would have to determine how she would use her time, and she would have to be much more responsible for her own education. However, a bit of content guidance was needed, since a 12-year-old unmotivated child will not become a self-directed, enthusiastic student overnight.