Five Kids and Peace by
The house was large, white, set well
back from the street, and surrounded with lawns,
gardens and beautiful big trees--the sort of place
that could easily keep a full-time gardener busy. It
was nearly suppertime of an autumn afternoon, and as
my hostess, who had met me at the airport, took me
through the side door and into the kitchen, I could
smell beef stew and wood smoke, just the sort of
things I wanted to smell in a place like that. We
went through a large hall with a beautiful staircase
and into a small sitting room where a fire burned
and three boys were sprawled prone on the floor, two
of them playing a game, one reading.
"Boys, I want you to meet Mrs.
All three were on their feet at
once, coming toward me to shake hands. Not only were
they not reluctant or surly, they acted as though
they were sincerely glad to see me.
After I was shown my room I joined
Arlita, my hostess, in the kitchen to help with
supper. She set about making biscuits while I cut up
apples for Waldorf salad. A few minutes before
supper was ready a couple of the boys appeared and
in no time had set the table, poured the milk,
carried in the food.
The dining room had an elegant
fireplace and mantelpiece, a bay window filled with
plants, and an enormous round cherry table. Joe, who
is a doctor, sat opposite the fireplace with his
wife at his side. I sat across from them and between
us the four sons and one daughter, ages nine to
sixteen. We all clasped hands for grace.
Conversation ranged from schoolwork, the church, the
neighbors, the old house a few blocks away where I
used to live, to mathematics and the meaning of a
passage of Scripture. All participated. All also
took it upon themselves to see to the comfort of
their guest, passing me the biscuits, the jam, the
salt, asking if I'd have another bowl of stew,
filling my water glass. It seemed that each child
understood that he was on the entertainment
committee. The fact that I was a contemporary of
their parents did not absolve them of gracious
responsibility. They were even eager to look after
me, eager to hear what I had to say.
The dining room doesn't have an
observation window with one-way glass to which I can
take certain parents I can think of to observe this
model family, seated around the cherry table, alert
yet relaxed, disciplined yet hilarious, attentive
yet at ease. And of course the family would object
very strenuously to anyone's holding them up as a
model. Yet they are. All families, in the last
analysis, are models--of something. Some of cosmos,
that wonderful Greek word which signifies order and
arrangement. Some of chaos, its opposite--disorder
At the end of the meal everybody
sang. I can't remember what gospel songs they sang,
but I remember the hearty way they all joined. Then
Joe read the Bible. They talked about what it meant.
The youngest son was asked first to explain what he
thought it was all about and was then challenged,
corrected and encouraged by siblings and parents.
Joe asked for prayer requests and each child thought
of somebody he wanted prayed for--a schoolmate who
seemed hungry to know God, a Jewish lady whose
husband had died, a kid on drugs. When the prayers
were finished Joe and Arlita and I went to the
sitting room to talk by the fire. All was quiet. I
was dimly aware of movement in the other rooms--the
table being cleared, dishes washed. Later I heard a
piano and a flute. People were practicing, homework
was undoubtedly being done, but all of it without
strife, without one interruption to the parents who,
so far as I noticed, had issued no instructions to
anybody when we got up from the table.
Later in the evening I noted the
"Are the kids in bed?" I asked.
"What time is it?" Arlita said.
"Then they're in bed. Usually we say
goodnight to them, but occasionally when we have
company they don't come down."
This almost took my breath away.
I've visited in a good many homes where the
going-to-bed routine takes the better part of the
evening, with wheedling, threats, pleas, prolonged
negotiations and eventual capitulation. How, I
wanted to know, do you do it? Such order, such
peace, such fun as everyone seemed to have, and such
smooth running of oiled wheels. I grew up in a
family where the same things could have been said,
but that was another generation, another day.
Walking still occurred to people as a possibility if
they had to get somewhere, and it was still
acceptable simply to sit on the porch some evenings
and not go anywhere. So how, in this day and age,
did Joe and Arlita do it?
They looked at each other as though
the question had not arisen before. Arlita smiled.
"Well . . . " she hesitated, trying
to think how they did do it. "I'm sure we did just
what you did. We decided how we wanted it to be and
then we did it that way. Isn't that right, Joe?"
"That's right. In fact, we decided
before the children were born how we wanted things
to be. The going-to-bed business, for example. I
don't want to hate my kids, and if I had them in my
hair all evening, if I had to fight to get them down
and fight to get them up again in the morning, I'd
hate them. So after they've reached eight or nine
years of age we don't tell them when they have to go
to bed. We tell them when they have to be at the
breakfast table. We give them each an alarm clock,
and if they know they have to be washed, dressed,
combed, in their right minds and in their places at
7:30, they soon figure out for themselves when to go
to bed and when to get up."
It worked. Next morning, which was
Saturday, the children were downstairs to do their
appointed tasks. At 7:30 we sat down to sausage,
fried apples, scrambled eggs, coffee cake, orange
juice and coffee. Arlita had not cooked the
breakfast, the kids had. They had organized things
so that the whole job was done in a quarter of an
hour or so. The table was set, the food on it, hot
and appetizing, on time.
Does the system ever break down? I
wanted to know. There are lapses, Joe and Arlita
said, and privileges sometimes have to be withdrawn,
but there's a lot of camaraderie in doing the jobs,
and everybody likes to see it work. I had never seen
a more beautifully ordered home, and neither had I
ever seen a better-adjusted, more likable and
outgoing bunch of kids. There must be a connection.
A house the size of theirs needs a
lot of maintenance. Nobody comes in to cook, clean
or garden. The whole family works. A list of special
jobs is posted every so often--woodcutting, window
washing, floor waxing, the sort of jobs that aren't
done every week--and the children sign up for
whatever they're willing to tackle. Then each child
makes out a three-by-five card for each job and puts
down the time he spent at it. The card is then
submitted to a parent who inspects the finished task
and signs the card if he approves the quality of the
work. If he does not sign it, the child does the job
over on his own time. Cards are turned in at the end
of the month and the children are paid the going
rate. With the money he earns, each buys his own
clothes, except for the youngest, who puts half his
money in the bank against the day when he too must
take the responsibility for buying clothes.
"We're all working for each other
this way," Joe said, "each taking responsibility as
he's able. They're not paid, of course, for daily
jobs like bedmaking and tablesetting and
dishwashing. But last month we paid for 125 hours of
Stravinsky in his Poetics of Music
refers to "the anguish into which an unrestricted
freedom plunges me." Unrestricted freedom--anguish.
Their opposites, discipline and serenity,
characterized the home I've described. But it took
thought. It took vision. It took courage to lay the
burden on the children, strength to support them in
it, humility to submit to the rule of life, and an
ear tuned to a different drummer from the one the