I’m writing this from an observation deck overlooking an enormous gymnastics studio. Below me are three classes of students working simultaneously in different areas (floor mat, balance beam, uneven parallel bars, etc.). One of those 50 or so kids is our daughter. I’m here every week, watching as she learns the intricacies of this beautiful sport.

Our older daughter has wanted to take gymnastics for years – just as our younger daughter wanted to take fiddle lessons. When you homeschool and live as deeply rural as we do, it’s not easy giving your kids the “advantages,” as extracurricular activities are sometimes termed. After looking long and hard at various options, we decided to take one day a week and travel to the city to give our girls the lessons that will enrich their minds and bodies. It’s the best we can do.

The reason these enriching activities have been on my mind is because of a CNN article I read that listed 15 places children should see by the time they’re 15 (such as Monticello, the Grand Canyon, and Disney World). My older daughter is 15 and she has seen exactly NONE of these admittedly cool sites.

But last month she got to see a calf being born on our farm.

So which enrichment activity is better? Seeing Monticello or seeing the birth of a calf?

The answer, of course, is both. Or neither. Kids will grow up just fine, thank you, without ever visiting Monticello or seeing a calf born.

It always amuses me to read what “experts” think are necessary to raise well-rounded, stable children – and how few of these recommended things are actually all that important. It’s also interesting to see the experts dance around the obvious and avoid mentioning what is critically necessary to prepare children to reach their maximum potential.

There are as many different ways to parent a child as there are parents. A laundry list of important factors might include a religious foundation, a sound education and controlling television viewing. More specific examples might include music or sports, a reverence for Mother Earth, or recycling (hey, everyone has an agenda).

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But this still misses the obvious.

You see, most parents can pay for lessons and passively watch their children become enriched through art or sports. My daughters’ lives are immeasurably richer because they can explore their interests in music (piano and fiddle) and gymnastics. Their lives are richer still because they get to plant gardens and can vegetables and see calves born and watch chicks hatch.

But is this enough? Is it necessary for a child to participate in enrichment activities to become a well-rounded adult?

No. What is necessary to raise well-rounded kids – children who will become capable of reaching their potential – is an intact, stable family. Duh.

Last year our daughter befriended a girl (we’ll call her Jane) in her gymnastics class. Our daughter is often drawn to underdogs, and Jane seemed shy and sad. It turns out the girl was in foster care. Once she settled in to her new home, her foster family asked Jane if she had any activities she wanted to try. When Jane hesitantly suggested gymnastics, her foster parents immediately enrolled her in classes. Jane was still coming to grips with her good fortune – she loved her lessons – but she had not yet learned to smile.

Yes, Jane’s life is now being enriched by gymnastics. But much more importantly, her life is being enriched by a family who gives a damn. At 13, she is experiencing for the first time what an intact, stable family is like – a family that cares about her needs and wishes; a family that offers a solid foundation upon which Jane, at last, can stand upright and become someone … instead of merely surviving.

Interestingly, it’s this hard reality for raising well-rounded children – the critical need for a stable and intact family – that no one wants to talk about. How about a biological father in the home? How about some discipline and limits? How about a lack of arguing? How about love and goofiness and reading and family dinners?

Even among children who attend public schools (and I happen to think this is a disadvantage), the ones who emerge least corrupted are those from stable families. An intact home gives children amazing advantages. When their emotional lives are not ruined by drama and stress, they are free to channel their energies into developing their talents and interests, standing firmly upon the solid foundation beneath their feet.

Clearly there are endless variables on the road to raising kids. Intact homes are fine unless parents refuse to discipline their children (which produces spoiled brats who grow into monsters). Families can be intact but not stable. Those suffering from abuse, crises, addictions, etc. are much worse than single-parent homes that are calm and peaceful.

And above all, life is messy. Spouses abandon their families. Illness or death occurs. Someone gets addicted to drugs. Unemployment results in eviction. Single women get pregnant. Endless unforeseen or uncontrollable circumstances can affect the stability of a family. Under such conditions, all you can do is the best you can do.

But none of this negates the fact that a stable and intact family is the best possible “advantage” anyone can give their child.

So despite the fact that our daughters are taking lessons that enrich them, despite the fact that they get to see things like newborn calves and baby chicks, the biggest advantage I can give my kids is to continue to love and honor their father, my husband. Should we ever lose our income or our home, at least they have that rock-solid foundation that will give them the best possible start to their adulthood.

A child is the most important creation of anyone’s life. Enriching that child is as simple as accepting your duty and responsibility – and as profound as the kind of adult your child becomes. The rewards for providing stability, discipline and love are great.

But failure to perform that duty should not be seen as an option.

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