My wife and I had 12 children over the course of 15 and a half years. Today, our oldest is 37 and our youngest is 22. I have always had a very prosperous job and enough money to give my kids almost anything. But my wife and I decided not to.
I will share with you the things that we did, but first let me tell you the results: All 12 of my children have college degrees (or are in school), and we as parents did not pay for it. Most have graduate degrees. Those who are married have wonderful spouses with the same ethics and college degrees, too. We have 18 grandchildren who are learning the same things that our kids learned—self respect, gratitude, and a desire to give back to society.
Here’s what we did right (we got plenty wrong, too, but that’s another list):
- Kids had to perform chores from age 3. A 3-year-old does not clean toilets very well but by the time he is 4, it’s a reasonably good job.
- They got allowances based on how they did the chores for the week.
- We had the children wash their own clothes by the time they turned 8. We assigned them a wash day.
- When they started reading, they had to make dinner by reading a recipe. They also had to learn to double a recipe.
- The boys and girls had to learn to sew.
Education was very important in our family.
- We had study time from 6 pm to 8 pm every week day. No television, computer, games, or other activities until the two hours were up. If they had no homework, then they read books. For those too young to be in school, we had someone read books to them. After the two hours, they could do whatever they wanted as long as they were in by curfew.
- All the kids were required to take every Advanced Placement class there was. We did not let entrance scores be an impediment. We went to the school and demanded our kids be let in. Then we, as parents, spent the time to ensure they had the understanding to pass the class. After the first child, the school learned that we kept our promise that the kids could handle the AP classes.
- If children would come home and say that a teacher hated them or was not fair, our response was that you need to find a way to get along. You need find a way to learn the material because in real life, you may have a boss that does not like you. We would not enable children to “blame” the teacher for not learning, but place the responsibility for learning the material back on the child. Of course, we were alongside them for two hours of study a day, for them to ask for help anytime.
- We all ate dinner and breakfast together. Breakfast was at 5:15 am and then the children had to do chores before school. Dinner was at 5:30 pm.
- More broadly, food was interesting. We wanted a balanced diet, but hated it when we were young and parents made us eat all our food. Sometimes we were full and just did not want to eat anymore. Our rule was to give the kids the food they hated most first (usually vegetables) and then they got the next type of food. They did not have to eat it and could leave the table. If later they complained they were hungry, we would get out that food they did not want to eat, warm it up in the microwave, and provide it to them. Again, they did not have to eat it. But they got no other food until the next meal unless they ate it.
- All kids had to play some kind of sport. They got to choose, but choosing none was not an option. We started them in grade school. We did not care if it was swimming, football, baseball, fencing, tennis, etc. and did not care if they chose to change sports. But they had to play something.
- All kids had to be in some kind of club: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, history, drama, etc.
- They were required to provide community service. We would volunteer within our community and at church. For Eagle Scout projects, we would have the entire family help. Once we collected old clothes and took them to Mexico and passed them out. The kids saw what life was like for many families and how their collections made them so happy and made a difference.
- When the kids turned 16, we bought each a car. The first one learned what that meant. As the tow truck pulled a once “new” car into the driveway, my oldest proclaimed: “Dad, it is a wreck!” I said, “Yes, but a 1965 Mustang fastback wreck. Here are the repair manuals. Tools are in the garage. I will pay for every part, but will not pay for LABOR.” Eleven months later, the car had a rebuilt engine, rebuilt transmission, newly upholstered interior, a new suspension system, and a new coat of paint. My daughter (yes, it was my daughter) had one of the hottest cars at high school. And her pride that she built it was beyond imaginable. (As a side note, none of my kids ever got a ticket for speeding, even though no car had less than 450 horsepower.)
- We as parents allowed kids to make mistakes. Five years before the 16th birthday and their “new” car gift, they had to help out with our family cars. Once I asked my son, Samuel, to change the oil and asked if he needed help or instruction. “No, Dad, I can do it.” An hour later, he came in and said, “Dad, does it take 18 quarts of oil to change the oil?” I asked where did he put 18 quarts of oil when normally only five were needed. His response: “That big screw on top at the front of the engine.” I said “You mean the radiator?” Well, he did not get into trouble for filling the radiator with oil. He had to drain it, we bought a radiator flush, put in new radiator fluid, and then he had to change the real oil. We did not ground him or give him any punishment for doing it “wrong.” We let the lesson be the teaching tool. Our children are not afraid to try something new. They were trained that if they do something wrong they will get not get punished. It often cost us more money, but we were raising kids, not saving money.
- The kids each got their own computer, but had to build it. I bought the processor, memory, power supply, case, keyboard, hard drive, motherboard, and mouse. They had to put it together and load the software on. This started when they were 12.
- We let the children make their own choices, but limited. For example, do you want to go to bed now or clean your room? Rarely, did we give directives that were one way, unless it dealt with living the agreed-upon family rules. This let the child feel that she had some control over life.
- We required the children to help each other. When a fifth grader is required to read 30 minutes a day, and a first grader is required to be read to 30 minutes a day, have one sit next to the other and read. Those in high school calculus tutored those in algebra or grade-school math.
- We assigned an older child to a younger child to teach them and help them accomplish their weekly chores.
- We let the children be a part of making the family rules. For example, the kids wanted the rule that no toys were allowed in the family room. The toys had to stay either in the bedroom or playroom. In addition to their chores, they had to all clean their bedroom every day (or just keep it clean in the first place). These were rules that the children wanted. We gave them a chance each month to amend or create new rules. Mom and Dad had veto power of course.
- We tried to be always consistent. If they had to study two hours every night, we did not make an exception to it. Curfew was 10 pm during school nights and midnight on non-school nights. There were no exceptions to the rules.
- We would take family vacations every summer for two or three weeks. We could afford a hotel, or cruise, but did not choose those options. We went camping and backpacking. If it rained, then we would figure out how to backpack in the rain and survive. We would set up a base camp at a site with five or six tents, and I would take all kids age 6 or older on a three- to five-day backpack trip. My wife would stay with the little ones. Remember, for 15 years, she was either pregnant or just had a baby. My kids and I hiked across the Grand Canyon, to the top of Mount Whitney, across the Continental Divide, across Yosemite.
- We would send kids via airplane to relatives in Europe or across the US for two or three weeks at a time. We started this when they were in kindergarten. It would take special treatment for the airlines to take a 5-year-old alone on the plane and required people on the other end to have special documentation. We only sent the kids if they wanted to go. However, with the younger ones seeing the older ones travel, they wanted to go. The kids learned from an early age that we, as parents, were always there for them, but would let them grow their own wings and fly.
- Even though we have sufficient money, we have not helped the children buy homes, pay for education, pay for weddings (yes, we do not pay for weddings either). We have provided extensive information on how to do it or how to buy rental units and use equity to grow wealth. We do not “give” things to our children but we give them information and teach them “how” to do things. We have helped them with contacts in corporations, but they have to do the interviews and “earn” the jobs.
- We give birthday and Christmas presents to the kids. We would play Santa Claus but as they got older, and would ask about it, we would not lie. We would say it is a game we play and it is fun. We did and do have lists for items that each child would like for presents. Then everyone can see what they want. With the internet, it is easy to send such lists around to the children and grandchildren. Still, homemade gifts are often the favorite of all.
- We loved the children regardless of what they did. But would not prevent consequences of any of their actions. We let them suffer consequences and would not try to mitigate the consequences because we saw them suffering. We would cry and be sad, but would not do anything to reduce the consequences of their actions.
We were and are not our kids’ best friends. We were their parents.