THESE are parlous times for parenthood. Significant statistics show that average Americans, following the example of government, are prescribing codes for the stork. College graduates, according to the figures, are failing to perpetuate themselves, having only one and five-eighths infants to the pair — which must eventually lead to a new problem of providing higher education for five eighths of a freshman. All this is very disturbing to the sort of people who enjoy being made miserable by vital statistics.
Yet these are largely speculative anxieties. Nobody really knows whether it is desirable for John and Jane Doe, just married with the connivance and blessing of their relatives and neighbors, to have two children or twentytwo. They don’t know themselves. Nor does anybody know whether the world needs more or fewer inhabitants, whether the future will offer easy living or hard times to its inheritors, whether the surge of civilization is onward and upward or down and out. The spirit of prophecy must work with too many unknown quantities to provide good guidance for parents in these days of doubt.
A lot of present solicitude for newlyweds may prove, therefore, to be a waste of time, which might be misspent on other matters. Yet parents deserve society’s sympathy. Particularly do those deserve it who invested in a family in the days when all investments seemed sound and sensible, and must carry on now that the bottom has fallen out of everything, including the baby’s high chair, the small boy’s savings bank, and the oldest son’s Sunday trousers.
No doubt the problems of these parents have already been settled by Dr. Cornelius K. Crabbe or some other member of a university faculty who found he had nothing to do last summer and therefore spent it in writing a research report which nobody will read. Or else Miss Sophia Spynster, who conducts a syndicated women’s page feature in sixteen newspapers, has given the answer in ten inches of type and a quotation from Confucius or the lesser prophets.
It is obvious, however, that the conclusions of these authorities are founded on a fine upstanding ignorance of what they are talking about. That is why I am moved and exercised, as father of a family of twelve, to contribute my mite to the misleading of others who have n’t twelve children but who know as well as I do how much sharper than a serpent’s thanks it is to have a toothless child. For the ignorance of parenthood increases as the square of the distance, until at last a man learns in middle age that he knows nothing about it and never did. With twelve children he may find it out sooner than that.
Six years ago, at a little luncheon in celebration of a Philadelphian’s first visit to Chicago, one of those present stood up to put a personal question. ‘Would you mind telling us, Mr. Rose,’ she asked, ‘whether you really have nine children?’ The guest speaker modestly admitted it. Then came another question from Dick Hobelman, columnist for the Chicago Daily News. ‘Would you mind telling us, Mr. Rose,’ he said, ‘whether you are working toward any definite objective?’
Heaven knows how many times the question has been put or implied since then. Meanwhile the family has increased to a round dozen. It is still a matter of public concern whether twelve are enough, or too many, or only the beginning of an ambitious effort to set a biological record.
Kind friends and curious critics seek for some fantastic philosophy which would account for seven boys and five girls in one family, all supported by one battered typewriter and a chronic case of writer’s cramp. The correct answer is that there is n’t any. If the minister who married us nearly twenty years ago had told me confidentially that there would some day be twelve Rosebuds on the family bush, I should have fallen backward into the baptismal font and asked for my money back. But he did n’t know, and neither did I.
And everyone is aware nowadays that nobody seriously intends to have twelve children, so that my wife, poor wretch, and I are telling fully two thirds of the truth when we say that our twelve-cylinder family just sneaked up on us, without fair warning or advance notices. It is our story — and we stick to it — that about two years ago she sat down at last to look the situation over. ‘ Do you know, my dear,’ she said, ‘that we now have twelve children?’ Counting them carefully, I discovered that we had. And we still have.
Recently the focus of friendly curiosity has shifted. It is obviously too late to question the wisdom of introducing twelve children into a single modest household. It may be too late to worry whether there will be any more. But the bystanding audience wants to know what we intend to do with these children, now that we have them.
It is an honest question and deserves an honest answer. Unfortunately I cannot think of one which solves the problem precisely and permanently. Yet I must face it, though I don’t much like the looks of it. Sometimes it seems incredibly complicated, but at other times I can reduce it to deceitfully simple terms. There are seven boys involved, from three to seventeen years old. There are five girls, aged four to eighteen. It is part of my parental duty, they tell me, to find the boys seven jobs and the girls five husbands.
Of course no one puts it so bluntly, but that is the plain meaning when somebody wonders or worries how I am going to give these youngsters their rightful advantages in life, including good health and a mouthful of modern dentistry, college educations and social opportunities, technical training and an appetite and aptitude for civilized living. These things are supposed to help bright boys to get good jobs and nice girls to get good husbands. And these, by and large, are what boys and girls are looking for when they begin to get over their growing pains.
Is it really my duty to provide them? Perhaps it is, but I must first be sure that I am wise enough to do it to the real advantage of the boys and girls who are under my present management. Just between ourselves, I am none too sure that I am, not even with their mother’s advice, assistance, and encouragement. And that makes a pretty predicament for a conscientious father who wants to finish his job and go fishing.
I might feel pretty badly about it if I could believe that anybody else knows much more about it than I do. You, my fellow parents, may think you do. But let us reason together, forgetting for a while the awful dignities of our office, the adult authority with which we bluff our way through our domestic difficulties, the skin-deep assurance with which we conduct our family affairs. Let us consider our own experience, which taught us nearly everything we know, and learn thereby not to meddle too much with the futures of our infants.
Allow me to look backward about thirty years to the beginnings of a career in which I am intimately interested. I was a bright lad, they tell me, and started out at thirteen to climb a long ladder of scholarship toward no place in particular. But necessity knocked me off the ladder at the second round and put me to work for my living. Three or four years later somebody made up my mind that I should become a minister of the gospel. That settled everything nicely for several years of overdue schooling and special training, except that I stopped six weeks short of a bachelor’s degree in theology and elected school-teaching instead.
Eleven years later a series of circumstances and accidents left me no longer a school-teacher. For three or four years afterward I called myself a business man, made a little money here and there, and wound up my affairs with a beautiful bankruptcy. Another series of accidents made me a free-lance writer, a newspaper man, an editor, and now a columnist on a leading American daily.
There is no sense to that story, except that it happens to be true. But it is not logical, and it was never predictable. My career might be compared with the route of a man who starts from Philadelphia to drive to Chicago and finds himself some time later in a oneway street in Singapore.
And that is one reason why I am not able or ready to tell my boys how to make their way in the world, nor ambitious to start them along the line of least resistance toward the wrong destination. I have n’t the faintest idea what fate holds in store for them. And I am certain that I cannot fix it for them.
Some of the neighbors want to know how I am going to give my seven boys a college education, not to mention their five sisters. I shall answer that when somebody proves to me that a college education, in itself, is worth what it costs in time and trouble and money. I know that many men send their sons to college, sometimes for no better reason than that they never went themselves. They think they must have missed something, because nearly all Americans nowadays believe in higher education more or less as they believe in a lot of other things which they never think about, such as groundhog day and the gold standard and the Einstein theory.
I, too, believe in education, but if my boy goes to college at my expense I want him to get what he is there for. He will have to show me, then, that he is fit for four years’ exposure to the advantages, absurdities, trials, and temptations of higher education. I won’t send him to college; I may let him go if he puts up a good fight and argument for it.
The last few years have exploded the theory that university training guarantees a boy or girl a good job.
Graduates of select girls’ colleges are standing behind the counters of department stores, while smart girls with six months’ business training are sitting at office desks and earning their keep. Boys with college degrees but no rich relatives or influential friends are competing on nearly equal terms with lads who skipped out of high school as soon as the law would let them.
One may argue that these are temporary conditions. So they are, but what will come after them? Not even the Washington brain trust can tell us. It is no parent’s responsibility, then, to chart his children’s careers for a future which he knows nothing about. The dice of destiny are loaded against his most careful judgment. He can only teach his boys to look after themselves, which is a day-to-day job with some thought for to-morrow. The day after to-morrow is too doubtful and far away to figure on, in a world which changes faster than a growing boy’s taste in neckties.
So I am ready to admit that I am no better able to predict my family’s future to-day than I could foretell the size of it twenty years ago. Dick Hobelman’s question is still unanswerable. I do not know, even now, whether I am working toward any definite objective — except in so far as my wife and I have been working toward one, line upon line and precept upon precept, for nearly nineteen years.
When the first-born son was two years old, we had not yet made up our minds whether he should be a bishop or a bartender. We were too busy at the moment persuading him to eat his oatmeal with a spoon and to leave the cat’s tail to the cat’s own management. We have been equally busy ever since, and made more so by the boy’s six brothers and five sisters. And some day all twelve may call us blessed because of it.
I have few arguments to offer in favor of a family of twelve, else it might appear that I was trying to persuade somebody else to follow my example. That is a man’s own business, subject to the advice and consent of his partner in matrimony. Some large families, no doubt, should have been stopped short before they started.
But I like to believe that, granted a decent endowment of brains and bodily ability, the children of a large family have an edge on their little neighbors of lesser households when they begin to make their way in the world. They learn at home the most important lessons which can be taught in college or in the rough-and-tumble discipline of early adult experience. They learn them young, so that the teaching is rooted in character, tested by trial and error, and confirmed by habit. The lessons are elemental, but nobody goes far in the world without learning them, unless he has money with which to hire other men’s brains and abilities to work for him. Even with money he will finally get no further than his own character, whether good or bad, can lead or drive him.
My son’s capital and stock in trade consist of what he has under his hat. It includes a lot of inaccurate information, with plenty of room for more. College could fill some of the vacuum without materially improving the quality of the contents. Much more important to his future success are the aptitudes, appetites, interests, enthusiasms, social skills, and civilized habits he has picked up by seventeen years’ experience of a strenuous family life.
He has learned thereby, I think, the essential elements of teamwork, selfdiscipline, and self-sufficiency. He has learned to look after himself, because nobody else has had time to fuss over him. He has invented most of his amusements and defended them against keen competition. He has fought for his opinions and ideas, and taken lickings for them. He has toughened himself to take his share of hard knocks and barbed shafts, and found out that sharp corners and sensitive spots do not wear well in a crowded world.
And that is not all. Boys and girls in a large family pick up a lot of things easily and naturally which others must learn by bad teaching or painful experience. The big family crosses so many little bridges that its members are spared some of the long jumps from ignorance to knowledge. There is always a baby about the house. There are growing girls and their goings-on, and boys beginning to make dates with other boys’ sisters. There is the cat who has kittens in public places, which is bound to cause talk in the best-regulated families. There is the burden of illness to be shared by many hearts and hands, and the Angel of Death whose wings are sometimes heard in the hush of night in every well-filled household.
Is there any other educational experience or social opportunity which can fit a full-grown girl so well for the momentous decisions which make her a woman, a wife, and a mother? She needs no book or spinster schoolteacher to instruct her in the simple mysteries of motherhood and babyhood. She has no needless illusions about boys, nor any twittering dread of their masculine magnificence. Her own brothers can cure her of girlish giddiness and gawkiness, and will be glad to do so. Her own daily companions will point out the pitfalls which she is trying not to see. Her many duties toward small brothers and sisters will teach her that married life is more than marshmallows.
She gets back at the boys by teaching them much which they never thank her for. In spite of themselves, the boys of a large family learn a few manners, a little responsibility, and a lot of sensible respect for the other sex. They may even be fond of their sisters in grudging fashion, and tremendously loyal to them in emergency. This training will lift a load of trouble from the strange women who will some day consent to marry them.
But a boy must break into matrimony as best he can and take the consequences. It is the girl who needs to know her way about before she goes anywhere. And I doubt very much whether anybody has ever succeeded in telling the ‘facts of life’ to a young person in half an hour of mutual embarrassment, with or without a physiological textbook or some pretty parable of the bees and flowers. No woman ever learns wisdom except by some sort of experience. A nice girl gets it under the kindliest auspices as a member of a large and lively family.
One more argument in favor of the large family as an educational institution, whether one is preparing for a job or for an adventure in wedlock, is that its children learn more from each other than from their elders. To approve of this seems to deny the dignity of adulthood, the wisdom of age and experience. I am prepared to deny them both. Most middle-aged Americans are muddle-headed, stubborn, and already bewildered by the world they have invented for their children to live in. Their certainties are part knowledge and part prejudice, their opinions cannot keep pace with the events which challenge them. They prove it by trying to impress the pattern of the past on the citizens of the present and future.
Pity the poor child who must learn how to live from the words and deeds of those thirty years older than himself, who are beginning to look backward while he has no thought or need or opportunity which does not regard to-morrow. He must learn the lessons of the past, of course, but he will learn them with better grace when he is fit and ready, in body and spirit, for the real world which beats about him. His brothers and sisters, friends and playmates, belong to that world. He must learn to work and play with them, fight and keep the peace with them, meet and marry them. Surely he should learn these things in the company of his kind, under good guidance, but not too much of it.
If this were intended to be a debate on the advantages and disadvantages of the old-fashioned family, I could make a case for either side. I could certainly produce some financial figures which would chill any careless enthusiasm for the oversized family, unless it belonged to somebody else. And I am bound to admit that money makes good matrimonial bait and can help an ambitious boy to get what he wants in the world, but the admission is purely academic on my part.
On the other hand, too much money may discount and depreciate youth’s most valuable assets. It can dwarf individuality and make courage of too little account in character. It oils the bearings and cushions the jolts of life, but it also puts grease on the grindstone of daily necessity, where boys and girls should sharpen their wits. It may deny the small girl her share in dishwashing and sweeping, which belong somewhere in every feminine education. It may spoil an able-bodied boy to make a loafer. It is a sorry substitute for the simple life and thrifty habits which make the best of all foundations for success in later years.
Nor need the lack of money, unless it means painful poverty, deny to boys and girls the stimulating experiences which discover their talents and awaken their ambitions. Public education, free libraries, museums, and galleries, the radio and the movies, the daily newspaper, and easy transportation are all part of the poor boy’s schooling and cost nearly nothing. Even specialized training is available at bargain rates for those who want it badly enough to go after it. It will take the lad of moderate means longer to get it than the rich man’s son, but that is not such a handicap as it seems. Knowledge is not enough to make a man; he must also be full-grown in mind and body if he is to use it to his own best advantage. Boys are often better off who cannot afford to finish their education too soon.
We do not seem, after all, to have answered our main question. Where can we find seven jobs and five husbands for twelve young Americans, and how shall we go about it?
The real answer is too silly for words. It is simply that it is too late now to do anything about it, at least so far as the older children are concerned. Their character patterns are cut out already, their appetites and abilities are as much a part of them as their noses, kneecaps, and sympathetic nervous systems. They can still be schooled, disciplined, and taught to make the best of what they’ve got. But if a boy has n’t some sense at seventeen he will still be stupid at sixty. If a girl can’t ‘pick ’em and hold ’em’ at eighteen she is likely to be a foolish virgin at forty, or else too wise to clutter up her life with a secondrate husband.
Sometimes I wonder what accident or incident marks the spot in childhood where the turn is taken toward success or failure or mere mediocrity. There is no scientific certainty about it, except that it happens much sooner than parents expect. Their incurable optimism or conceit supposes that desperate remedies at the onset of adult life may make up for all errors in early training or inheritance. That is why boys are so often sent to college because nobody can think what else to do with them. That is why girls are sometimes sent to finishing school to finish something that was never started. That is why we grow gray with worry over the younger generation just when it is about to be no longer young.
This may be called a counsel of despair, for it means that parents must be wisest when they are new to their job or when they are trying to find room for another baby in a family which already occupies all their time and energies. But innocence may be a better equipment for parenthood than too much taking thought. A little common sense and a lot of love may go a long way in the early years, which matter so much when a boy grows older and looks for a job or a girl wants a husband.
The ignorance of parents includes the merciful forgetfulness which hides the errors and inspirations of those early years. When our boys and girls grow up we are bound to admit that in more ways than one we made them what they are. But we do not remember how we did it.
I have played only an inconsiderable part in the education of this twelvefold family. I have made a few suggestions and given some spankings when spankings seemed due. In the case of the oldest boy I do recall an incident which now seems significant. That was when he was one year old. For ten nights running, his stubborn little individuality urged him to defy society at large by standing up in his crib at bedtime and howling his head off. For ten nights running, I sat beside his bed and knocked him down as often as he stood up. On the eleventh evening he suddenly saw the point, put his thumb in his mouth, and went smiling to sleep.
He is a nice lad now and does not seem to hold any hard feelings. Perhaps our mutual respect and esteem date from far back beyond his remembrance. And he landed his first job last summer and got away with it, if that means anything. I think it does.