Railroad Tracks

Photo by Teeratas as www.freedigitalphotos.net

When the rails of habit are laid down, like the tracks set out for a locomotive train, [life] can go along easily and smoothly. The train moves easily, but the laying down of the rails has taken a lot of effort. Imagine yourself as John Henry, the steel-driving man who, with determination and perspiration, hammered those rails, laying miles of track across America. ~Karen Andreola



Looking back about five years ago, I believe I was about as frazzled as a mother of three children could be. During the school year, a daily schedule dictated our days. But then school got out, and the more carefree (and tricky) months of the year began… summertime.

During the summer, the kids and I would be in our pajamas until who-knows-what time of day. The TV was such a big part of our lives the children should have been calling it “Mama”, and it would honestly take hours to get ready to go anywhere. We could never find shoes, or the house would be so messy I felt guilty doing fun things. Just the thought of getting us all ready and out the door almost did me in.

After several difficult weeks that summer, I knew that I had to take some action. The thought of a farmer’s life kept gracing my mind. A farmer gets up, gets dressed, and does his morning chores regardless of season, weather, moods, or anything else.

I decided we were going to become ‘farmers-in-training’.  Every morning I wanted the kids to get right out of bed, get dressed and take care of their rooms, regardless of what plans the day held. Plus, I wanted them to do it all without my having to prod them. I wanted it to be a habit as common as eating, sleeping, going to school, etc.

With that in mind, I set up the following chart for each child. They made and decorated it themselves. The kids were around seven, five, and three at the time.


1. Clean room

2. Make bed

3. Comb hair

4. Brush teeth

5. Put on shoes and socks

6. Get dressed


I had read that habits take about one month to form. With that goal in mind, we set about getting these habits licked!

Little did I know… How do I put this? I discovered I couldn’t train my children because…

I, myself, was completely unable to be this consistent.

I wanted to be the farm-mother I had envisioned—up early, making a hearty breakfast, children doing all of their chores cheerfully, and a bluebird singing to me all before 5:00 am.

Give me a job, give me school, give me anything with outside pressure and I am GREAT at making sure it gets done. But at home? When I was tired or not in the mood or the kids really didn’t want to do it?

I kept justifying to myself that my kids were the problem, but it soon became blatantly clear that the problem wasn’t them, it was me! Why couldn’t I do this?

I could sense this was critical for us. Many, many months went by and we just kept trying. Painstakingly, I learned to be kinder to myself (and the kids) on the days we raced out of the house without having done it all. We’d miss days and weekends were particularly hard since they were so different.

Well, there was no magic, we just didn’t give up. After a year of training me, then another year of training the children, we found our entire family settling into the morning routine.

We eventually settled on an immediate consequence for a job well-done or undone, which was eating breakfast. If the chart is done, the child gets to enjoy a wonderful, family breakfast with the rest of us. If the child doesn’t do it, they must wait until the mid-morning snack time to eat. (This consequence isn’t for everyone, but it works for us.)

Now, five years later, I can tell you this has made a huge difference in our lives! The kids rarely miss breakfast, their jobs are done, and their rooms are clean (the kid-version of clean). But something else has happened that is even better.

There’s a different feeling in the house after the charts are done. The kids feel good, they feel proud of themselves, and they’re primed to jump into whatever is going on that day. I also get an opportunity to praise them every morning for a job well-done and for being responsible. Like a ripple effect, the happiness and productivity from the morning affects the entire day.

This particular Sunday morning I found my kids with beds made, rooms clean, and church clothes on. My three-year-old did her part by putting on her swimming suit.

I often wonder what would have happened if I had quit one of the hundreds of times I really wanted to? It was SO HARD laying down those railroad tracks of habit. Just like John Henry in the beginning quote, I felt like we were literally laying down steel, every day, to make this finally happen. I’m so thankful we didn’t give up!

All other family systems we have set up have been built upon this morning routine.  We’re getting better at laying down new tracks. Sometimes as I’m cooking breakfast and the kids are cheerfully doing their morning chores, there might not be a bluebird, but I am singing inside!

QUESTION: Do you have an area of life where instilling a good habit would make all the difference?

CHALLENGE: Figure out where you could make a change, work and love yourself into the new habit, and then enjoy the ride along your new tracks!


  1. Bev King says

    Great article. Practical wisdom not only for child rearing but also for all adults in establishing good living habits. Would love to hear more from Emily!! Also, loved the picture of the adorable Nielson children!!!

  2. Tina says

    I love that top quote! It’s so easy to get discouraged when we don’t see the fruit of our labors right away. Great reminder that the most important things in life take a lot of work, physical and emotional, and lots of time. Chores and piano practice are the areas we seem to focus on, but date nights and instilling our family values in our children also comes to mind.

  3. hosander says

    I gave my 4 year old daughter a simple list of chores like those listed, things she had to do before she can get any screen time. Not only does she do them without being asked, she asks to do them! And I have noticed a huge drop in tantrums because she accomplishes something by herself every day and gets the reward. I hope it continues…

  4. myboysmommy says

    I love this article! As I was reading it, I thought, “She is talking about me!” Just this morning I was thinking, I have to do something to help us make mornings more routine and more productive! My boys are 3, 5 & 7 and until just before lunch we all were still in our PJ’s! Thanks for the insight and the encouragement! We are starting today to lay down those tracks!

  5. mommyjoy12 says

    I love Charlotte masons ideas on laying down the rails that Karen Andreola so wonderfully shares. That is what keeps me going when I feel it would be easier to just let it slip once. Sometimes sticking to it has brought me to tears feeling like a meanie because my kids have to experience the consequences of their choices (not getting to leave with Dad since they hadn’t finished their duty earlier when the opportunity was there). I do not like to nag or remind repeatedly. I let them learn from experience. I am thinking that this might be the hardest part of mothering right now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *