Monday, February 18, 2013


I bought this book for its cover: Christmas Stories, Everyman's Library.  Happy though that it begins  with Charles Dickens.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Children and Work

A little friend who loves to do the dishes. She and my daughter (r) had just made a cake.  
More from Living with Children by Mrs. Lillian Gilbreth

Mr. and Mrs. Gilbreth were big believers in encouraging and allowing children to work in service to the family at a very young age. In fact Mr. Gilbreth had even "marked places on the closet floor with chalk where his slippers should go and nailed down a paper circle where his wastebasket was to stand, and allowed the baby, even before she could walk, to feel that she could help by putting away the slippers and pushing back the wastebasket.... The parents who have allowed their boys and girls this opportunity and privilege [to serve and contribute to the family] not only know their own joy in teaching the childrn but the children's delight in learning to be of service."

"Children learn to work best on real live projects. This is one reason why the children of pioneers were so admirably trained. There was no need to invent jobs to keep them busy or to think up chores to make them believe the work they actually did was actually needed. It is very difficult today, especially in the apartment-house life which is all that some families ever have, to find live projects."

Mrs. Gilbreth then relates how she and her husband chose their home because it needed love and care to bring it up to snuff and maintain--a large project full of many little projects and chores that they did as a family, with all children participating. The same with the summer house, which was little better than an empty shack in the beginning. "To rescue, repair, and reinstate every old piece of furniture on the place and never to buy anything that one could make became a matter of pride with the children.... A very young child, especially if his efforts are appreciated, will form ties with the places where he has accomplished something worthwhile that will always remain sources of satisfaction."

"Once the work projects have been thought through, an efficient workplace must be planned for. Again and again I have heard my husband say to some child who had started to sort stamps, polish silver, or do his homework, 'Here that is no place to work.' He would then rearrange work and worker till the light was right, the clutter removed, and the room or desk or table established as a workplace that not only made the work easier but gave the small person that attitude of good work. The child was made to feel, too, that a well-arranged workplace was not prescribed for him alone. He was allowed to criticize the workplace of the older members of the family, and any suggestions he could make for betterment were rewarded."

To read more of the ideas of Mrs. Lillian Gilbreth, in addition to Living with Children, there is her fascinating autobiography, As I Remember, and The Home-Maker and Her Job. Mrs. Gilbreth invented the three-sided kitchen geared to efficiency and the step-lid-up trash can.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

An Old (and Successful) Method Comes Back Around

The Kidder Family, profiled in the Wall Street Journal for its use of workplace methods to make their family life happier and still productive. 
Parents are borrowing methods from the workplace to help run their households and raise their children, the Wall Street Journal reported in a feature article February 9. The large spread featured a fun graphic with photo mugs of a family of five with their family-company titles, plus the cat (Rodent Removal Engineer) and the dog (Security Officer).

The author is Bruce Feiler, whose new book The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Marriage, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More is being released this month. Mr. Feiler reports that families are starting to take some pages from the workplace to manage their hectic family lives: weekly family meetings, accountability sheets in the kitchen for daily and weekly chores, a family mission statement, and much freer back and forth between children and parents (borrowed from agile development methods), all in the interests of building the enterprise--a happy and productive family.

This is not a new idea. As many of us have known since we enjoyed Cheaper by the Dozen as children, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Gilbreth applied their efficiency methods--in-depth studies on how to reduce fatigue and increase productivity--to the daily lives of their house full of children. Unlike their contemporary and rival efficiency expert Frederick Taylor, the Gilbreths believed that people who enjoyed their work were far more productive than those who didn't, and so were keenly interested in all the subjective aspects of creating a human and productive workplace. For instance, they studied the causes of stress (in which  they included clutter) and how to remove them.

Mrs. Lillian Gilbreth
Nevertheless, one might well ponder how Mr. and Mrs. Gilbreth, both of whom worked full time professionally, albeit at home, were able to maintain their large family of 12 youngsters with the help of one cook and one adored but feckless handyman, and then after Frank Gilbreth died, without a father and without the cook. Family councils, where chores were assigned with much back and forth on skill levels by age and likes and dislikes, routines, family meals, fun outings, a stripped down and lean vacation home to go to each summer, were among the ways the Gilbreths kept their children happy and productive in their endeavors, while as mother and father blazed new trails in the industrialized workplace.

Underlying their success, I believe, were two secret ingredients. First, the marriage between the Gilbreths was a partnership in every sense of the word. Although Mrs. Gilbreth                        
was willing to take a second place next to her husband, she held nothing back in bringing her excellent education, intelligence and thoughtfulness, self-discipline, and energy for the use of her husband and her family--and found great joy in doing so. Second, radiating from their mutual respect for each other, the Gilbreths showed great respect for their children. "Each member of the home must not only be able to express himself but be urged to do so and given not only the opportunity but the rewards of expression," she wrote in her 1928 book, Living with Children.

Expectations and standards were high. Children were not harshly disciplined nor were they coddled:

"It is better, too, for children to enter the family life as sharing rather than receiving members. They should not be allowed needlessly to change the entire method of living or to feel that they are to be the center of interest and the real reason for the existence of the family. This is no kindness to them. All their lives long they will have to learn to adjust themselves to the needs of others; the family may not continue to make them the most important members of the household, and even if it does, the world will not follow its example.... It may be beneficial for parents and family 'to give up everything for the baby,' but it is most undesirable for the baby....

"If a satisfying life is one full of experiences, then it is our job to expose the child to experiences, not to shield him from them; to help him overcome difficulties, not move them out of his way; to teach him to achieve successes, not hand him the results of successes we have achieved for him....
As often and as early as possible, he should become an active participant in every home problem in order to derive creative experience from it....

"Nothing better generates self-confidence than being effective. While the child in a home consciously governed by laws which hold good everywhere may have a little harder time learning to be effective, he has a much better chance to be so when he later steps out in the world than if he had to learn a new technique of handling situations when faced with the difficulties of a more complex life."

The Gilbreth family on the see-saw outside their vacation home.

By the same reasoning, "as a part of his effectiveness in the world, we want the child to learn to make his own decisions wisely and quickly and having made them, to be satisfied with the results. We may start with letting him decide on the color, design, and cut of his clothes. This is a personal problem that is sure to interest him and on which he will have opinions at a very early age. I have known youngsters to point out in a very decided manner which dress they wanted to wear before they were old enough to ask for the dress or discuss the matter."

I found Mr. Feiler's article right in the spirit of Mrs. Gilbreth's child-raising philosophy. In Living with Children, Mrs. Gilbreth opined that it is far more difficult to raise one child than many. I have seen articles recently in which women have spent so much energy on being mothers that there is little time for anything else, so great is their obsession with their youngster and doing everything "right." I think Mrs. Gilbreth would laugh at such an attitude. I hope that Mr. Feiler's book helps demystify some of the current views of raising children.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A New Inspirational Slogan

I love this poster produced by Tanamachi Studio in New York City founded by young artist Dana Tanamuchi. Tanamuchi is an expert both in typography and in chalk drawing, as her work is in chalk. As you can read here, it was all just a hobby and then blossomed into a full-time occupation with her own company. Here she is--


In an age in which children are no longer learning how to write script, I find Ms. Tanamachi's work totally inspiring. I love all the flowers, pine cones, berries, ribbons, and other extravaganza interlacing the letters.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff

Calm Morning by Frank Weston Benson, 1904

This book published by Persephone Post (No. 67) is a snapshot taken of a family on their annual two-week vacation to the southern coastal town of Bognor Regis, England, where they have holidayed for the past 20 years. As the book opens, we see Mr. and Mrs. Stevens beginning their mental and physical preparations for the grand excursion with their three children: Mary and Dick, both of whom are now out of high school and working, and younger, busy, and enthusiastic Ernie.  This may be their last vacation as a family, as Mr. Stevens notes at the outset: "How splendid it all was!--the whole family going away together again, after those dark, half-thrown hints from Dick and Mary about separate holidays with their friends. Thank God they had come to nothing!"

Sherriff evokes that delicious savoring of every moment of a happy vacation, and shows that their yearly carefree two weeks at the seaside have built up a monument of memories in the minds of each family member that binds them together.

With attention to domestic detail and the thoughts of especially Mr. Stevens and his two older children, A Fortnight in September is a snapshot of middle-middle-class life in Britain between the two wars. Money is tight, hopes have been disappointed, the future is uncertain. In this frame, the Stevens family shows loyalty, determination, prudence, and forebearance.

The book reminded me of the film, This Happy Breed, which tells the story of a similar family in the same time period. But whereas the family in "the happy breed" is actually happy, often joking with one another, and socialable with neighbors and relatives, the Stevens family seems more isolated and far more nervous about their station in life and of maintaining proprieties. For instance, the train trip to Bognor Regis is described in detail from the standpoint of Mr. Stevens, who is extremely anxious about getting seats, getting tickets, getting the train connection, getting everyone on board. All travelers are nervous, but I found myself irritated that I had to read about Mr. Stevens' anxiety, which was all for naught anyway. But this nervousness permeates his thoughts, and although I respected him for his stalwartness and care for his family, I didn't enjoy him; he seems encased in his logistical and social fears.

Mrs. Stevens, we learn in the first chapter, does not actually savor these vacations like the rest of the family because she does not like the sea. Good woman that she is, she never complains or tries to persuade her husband of an alternative. She goes enjoys the holiday as best she can. The author effectively dispenses with Mrs. Stevens as an emotional pole for her family--she is a loving and devoted caretaker, but throughout the rest of the book we never hear much of her inner thoughts. This imbalance weakens the book considerably.

Overall, the book was a disappointment, not because I was looking for a more robust plot, but because I felt that the author had painted a portrait that diminished the quality of the people portrayed by focusing on what was on their minds, rather than in their hearts.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker

Golden Afternoon by Thomas George Sotter, 1935

Recently a friend asked me which country I would most like to visit and I answered Montana. Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker gave me a chance to go. Written in 1944, the book tells the story of a young woman and her experiences in love and work. She is the daughter of a rancher transplanted from Vermont after marrying a Russian peasant girl he had met when wounded in Archangel, Russia, at the end of World War I. His New England family did not take kindly to Anna and to escape the wounds of disapproval and unkindness, the two took up an offer of free land and moved to Montana to try a living as dry land wheat farmers.

Written in the first person by the couple's young daughter and only child, Ellen, Winter Wheat is a medley of love stories: the young love between Ellen and her fiance Gil, whom she meets in her first year at college; the subterranean love of her parents for each other; her parents' love for Ellen; and the love of a young widower for his young son, a family that Ellen comes to know when she spends a half year teaching in a one-room schoolhouse far out in the prairie.

The other love that fills the book is Ellen's love of the sky and land of Montana. Walker's descriptions of the terrain are the constant frame of the story and give an Easterner like me a sense of what it must be like to see such a big sky and open land. Walker herself was, like me, raised in Philadelphia. She moved out West with her husband, a medical doctor. Perhaps it takes an Easterner to appreciate the gigantic vistas of the West, since for the most part we are hemmed in by hills and trees.

Mrs. Walker also makes us acutely aware of the way in which the extreme hard work and isolation--the lack of leisure or luxury--for those who eeked out a living on the prairie could lead to a kind of de-culturation, in comparison to life in the East--a fact of life that many Western wives, mothers, and teachers such as Ellen fought to overcome.

This is the first book I have ever read of Mildred Walker's, and I intend to read more. I found that she examined real life, described the real work of ranching and school-teaching. Nothing was tied up in a neat and facile bow; the story bears a greater resemblance to the uncertainties, confusions, and discoveries of real life, and with the miracle of the land and its fruit.