We also spend a lot of time talking about time because we time music practice. My ten-year-old is great at knowing how much time is left during piano practice. He is an ace when it comes to asking me ten minutes before his ten o’clock bedtime if he can just finish what he’s doing.

But my husband and I both have a hunch that he doesn’t really understand how time works. On the farm we are out in the open and there are no curtains on the window. And even I, the only one of the four of us not raised on a farm, can tell what time it is based on where the sun is.

On a rainy day, it’s harder. And it’s been raining so much that instead of freezing, the ground has been soft enough to dig a completely new flowerbed and transplant shrubs in the middle of winter.

This afternoon, when it was darker than normal, and we had finished afternoon practice earlier than normal, my son said it’s time for dinner.

“It’s 3pm,” I told him.

My husband laughed from the other room.

My son said, “Dad thinks I can’t tell time.”

I said, “I don’t think you can either.”

My son threw a fit. He said he knows how, and “Of course every ten-year-old knows how!”

I realized that he feels he should know how, so I said, “You’re great at learning whatever you think you need to know.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Like I learned to read to play video games.”

“Yeah,” my husband said, “So when you get tired of not knowing how to read a clock, you’ll learn.”

“I already know,” he said. “Quiz me.”

“Okay. What time is it now?”


I look down to squelch my laughs. My husband doesn’t hold back.

I am pretty sure my son only wants to know more about time because he thinks that’s what people know. If he thought people just sort of fake it with the clock then he’d probably be okay faking it, too.

So is it self-directed that he wants to learn to tell time? Or is it something like peer pressure?

I recently read The Sports Gene, which is a compendium of research about why athletes choose to learn what they learn. It turns out that one of the reasons Kenyans are so good at long-distance running is that most of the kids run about six miles to and from school every day. And one of the reasons Jamaica is so good at sprinting is that all Jamaican kids are tested for raw sprinting talent in high school.

Those kids choose to run as adults, often, because it’s just what you do in that country. Like you play ice hockey if you live in Canada.

Self-directed learning is a combination of peer pressure and self-motivation. I think that might be okay, though, because the end goal is to create a good member of society, and you have to care about the people around you in order to achieve that goal.