The columnist Abigail Van Buren once said, "If we could sell our experiences for what they cost us, we’d all be millionaires." I wish my children would take my free advice on how to do things when I offer it. It has cost me dearly. But I’m still learning myself. Seems I don’t master one critical life skill before the need for a new one arises. It’s hard to learn from instructions and explanation only. Demonstrations are useful, but there’s no substitute for good old "trial and error."
As a fine art minor in college, one of my most difficult classes was ceramics. It was taught by a stocky little lady named Hilda Smith. She was a brilliant artist, but not very patient. After a student had made several attempts at "throwing" a lump of clay onto the exact center of the spinning potter’s wheel, Hilda would get frustrated. She’d just nudge the kid off the stool and, with her enormous hands, she’d slap that clay down dead center the first time. Then she’d begin gracefully and effortlessly forming a bowl as if by magic. However, I think we would have learned better if she’d have just let us struggle through until we got the hang of it.
As parents, we want our kids to benefit from our hard-earned experiences without having to pay the high price in years and tears. Also we don’t want to go through the agony of watching them "do it wrong." One old rancher tried to demonstrate a reining technique to his sons one afternoon, but the lesson didn’t go as planned.
It was back in the mid 1950s when the screwworm epidemic was rampant in the southern part of the United States. Flies killed thousands of cattle by boring into minor wounds on the cattle’s back and laid countless eggs. When the larvae hatched, they fed on the flesh until the host animal eventually died. Doctoring animals infected with screwworms or "wormies" took up a good part of the ranchers’ days until the late 1960s when the parasite was basically eradicated.
One hot August afternoon, the two teenage sons and their dad went out looking for infected livestock on their ranch near Mason, TX. All afternoon, the father watched his sons gradually stop or turn their horses. Their reining technique was all wrong. Feeling very flustered, he finally yelled "Watch me!" over his shoulder as he galloped away.
The boys stopped obediently to watch their father show them how to rein a horse the right way. They were beside a tank that had been recently dug to catch the overflow from a windmill. Their father galloped his horse, Prince, at full speed towards the tank, reining at the last possible moment as he approached the dirt bank. Prince stopped all right, but his front feet sank about two feet into the soft dirt, causing him to do a three-point headstand with his forehead flat on the bank and his legs going straight up in the air. Of course, their dad wasn’t expecting that result and flew right off his horse. He hit the top of the dam, slid down the other side and landed with one boot in the water. The boys watched the acrobatic stunt in horror from afar. Prince held the headstand for several seconds with his back legs thrashing in the air and then fell over on his side. He almost rolled over the dam before managing to get back on his feet. Fortunately, he didn’t roll over the dam. If he would have, he might have crushed the boys’ father who was still too stunned to move.
When the boys realized their father wasn’t hurt, they struggled to stifle their laughter. They dared not crack a smile—not yet. Their amusement would not have been well received at that moment.
Their dad finally got up and picked up his hat. He dusted the caliche dust from his clothes and rubbed the mud off his boot.
"Come on, boys," he said meekly, "let’s go."
After that day, most lessons were explained and not demonstrated. If the task wasn’t performed correctly the first or second time, then dad waited patiently and let them learn by practicing, which is usually more effective anyway.