How do you eat an elephant?

By Joan Hershberger

"How do you eat an elephant?" the little kid looked up at me after he read the question from the book of riddles.

"I don't know."

"One bite at a time," he yelled and laughed at the joke.

"How do you get a PhD?" the philosophy professor asked my philosophy 101 class.

We looked at him blankly.

"Sit down often and long enough to finish the classes and papers," he smiled.

"Just do a little bit at a time," summarizes a technique I learned from my parents. My parents may not fit today's definition of home schooling, but they definitely homeschooled us. Every parent teaches children. Some extend the lessons to reading, writing and arithmetic. But every day, every child learns many things from their parents.

Both my parents taught me to approach big tasks a bit at a time.

On cleaning day, my mother would sit in a chair in the living room and point to individual items strewn around the room.

"Joan, put away those doll clothes."

"Sharon, take that game upstairs."

"Jane, gather up those books."

She skipped the ubiquitous command, "clean up this room." She knew we needed to have that command broken down into steps.

My father used a similar approach when tall weeds overtook a huge field. At least that's the way I remember the field's size. The infestation of weeds could only be removed by being individually pulled and removed.

Dad and my uncle gathered children, nieces and nephews. Dad did not say "Okay, now we are all going to pull weeds until we clear the field." No, he said, "Joan and Jane, go pull 100 weeds for the trash pile. Bill, Sharon and Burnie, you pull 50. Smaller numbers for the smaller kids. Bigger numbers for the oldest."

When we finished those assignments, he sent us back into the field with another assigned number of weeds to pull until we desiccated that weed patch.

I used the "a bite at a time" technique with my children. Some days required a bite-sized approach just to get the day started.

More frequently than I care to consider, days with my night owl son began with his sleepy whine, "I don't feel good. I can't go to school."

I would study him for one second, shake my head and say, "Well, get out of bed, go to the bathroom, wash your face and we'll see how you feel."

He would reluctantly leave his nest, wash his face and say, "I don't feel good."

"Well, go put on some jeans and a t-shirt and come eat some breakfast."

A few minutes later he wandered out in sock feet. "I can't go to school."

"Hmm, do you want toast and eggs or cereal for breakfast?"

He chose cereal and ate. Then, without any further whines, he would put on his shoes and head out the door to school. He got ready for the day at school one step at a time without battling the huge transition from bed to desk.

Another son went to his first week at a new college. He collected each professors' syllabus and called in a panic. "I can't do all this!"

I listened. "You don't have to do all of it at once. Just a bit each week."

He talked with his professors.

"I can't do all this."

"Just do what I ask for each week. I don't need it all at once."

He talked with others until he relaxed and enjoyed the daily bits of education his professors presented: one week of work at a time.

A lot of problems are like that. We can't fix everything all at once. But we can do it one bite at a time and laugh that someone tried to trick us into thinking we had to eat that elephant all in one meal.

Joan Hershberger is a former staff writer for the El Dorado News-Times and author of "Twenty Gallons of Milk and other columns from the El Dorado News-Times."