As I said before, I never take credit for the fact that our two children were such good friends in those early years. I mostly consider it a happy accident, and one that had little to do with us as parents. But when a parent asks me if I can think of anything that might have encouraged that delightful state of affairs, I do remember certain elements of our household, and I wonder if perhaps some decisions we made in well-intentioned ignorance may actually have contributed positively.

It may all go back to the blue table.

This was a table I came across in a childrens’ store.  It was the perfect dimensions and height for two children to sit side-by-side and do all kinds of arts, crafts, and later, even homework.  It was very sturdy, although not very appealing from an interior design standpoint: a bright blue plastic embedded with fibers almost like fiber glass, and the legs were L-shaped with each side of the “L” about 3 inches deep, like two sides of a square, and those legs wrapped the corners of the table, giving it real stability. We placed it in the family room where an end-table would be at the end of the two sofas turned at a 90 degree angle, and had two plastic chairs there.  On the table was all kinds of craft supplies: drawing paper, construction paper, crayons, pencils, scissors, paste, tape, glue, always out.  At least for preschoolers, I don’t think there’s much more enticing than art supplies.  Even if you’re not “crafty,” (I’m not) watching TV shows where they cut and paste is sort of magical.  The sounds! The rrr-rrr-rrr sound that scissors make when they cut construction paper.  The sound of folding or taping or gluing paper. Something about it is soothing, like chicken noodle soup on a rainy day.  So the blue table was just. . .there.  Always available, and our two kids used it for hours on end.

At birthday parties, we could put our two and my godchildren at it.  In the summer we would move it outside when the kids were feeling entrepreneurial. It’s funny that something so seemingly random like the purchase of that blue table would have ended up affecting the culture in our house for years. If so much depended on a red wheelbarrow for William Carlos Williams, so much in our house depended on the blue table.


And from there, so many habits were established.  So that creating cool stuff became “what we do together.”


So that when we traveled, any table became the place for creativity.


And any place became the place for a brother and sister to find ways to amuse themselves.


Is there a “blue table” in your family’s life?  Something that has set the tone for positive, constructive enjoyment?

Perhaps there’s one in your future: what might it be, and how can you go about finding it?

I don’t want to discourage parents whose children don’t seem naturally to get along.  That day did arrive for ours — I think it was when our children reached middle school.  But until then, they were  great friends and had hours of hilarity together for years.  It was always a mystery to me why this was so, and I was very grateful, but I never felt like I could take credit.  Often, however, I would ponder it, and analyze why it might be. My brother and I, who were about three years apart, played happily in preschool, but then competed and fought like France and Germany (I was France, he Germany) from the elementary years on. My husband and his sister, five years apart, were too separated by age to have much interaction: they were more like England and Greece.  But our two were delighted with each others’ company, their four-year age difference notwithstanding — so much that for years they didn’t have friends over as often as they might.  They had wonderful built-in playmates in each other.

One thing my husband and I did as parents was to try to inspire in our son’s imagination what it might feel like to be the younger, just to encourage him to be empathetic and gentle with his sister.  For nearly four years he had been an only child, doted upon and showered with attention, affirmation and encouragement like a crown prince by his subjects.  How could we make that up to his poor sister, who always had to share our attention with a precocious boy four years her senior?  I filled Andrew’s head with the concept that this clumsy girl baby must surely feel entirely inadequate next to her fluent, coordinated, adept, confident older brother.  Consequently, in his attempts to win our approval or to be classified as a Good Older Brother, he would exclaim, “Sidney! what you are doing right now? putting ravioli on your head? I have never done that!” “Sidney! You are really good at  dancing! I can’t dance at all!” (“nor do I want to!” — naw, he didn’t say that.  He probably just thought it.)

It wasn’t until years later, watching home videos, that I was shocked to see all of us catering to a pudgy little female tyrant, careening around commanding, “NO TALK, ANDREW! NO TALK!” and if he dared to violate her wishes, backhanding him good! In my worry about the “second child syndrome,” I caved to her every shriek, while long-suffering Andrew quietly acquiesced to whatever the little despot demanded.  This was a completely different version of reality from the one I carried in my mind. Holy moly: Sidney wasn’t to be pitied; she ruled the roost.

But she adored her big brother.  He was her beau ideale. She tried to do everything he did.  One day after a long session of father-son baseball during a family vacation, we were all back in our hotel room sprawling on the floor, when Sidney came in from the adjoining bedroom, baseball cap askew on her head, ball the size of a grapefruit in her right baby hand, bat in the other hand, toddling over to us as if to say, “Play baseball with me!” It was one of those rare moments that shines in all our memories.

As time went on and she gained verbal skills and humor, the sounds of giggles wafted through the house like perfume for the ears.  “How pleasant it is when brothers live in harmony!” Andrew would make funny things for his little sister, such as a large construction paper book entitled “PREWEO EWO.” It was nonsensical to us, but he “read” it to her quite often with great dramatic inflection, as we tried to muffle our amusement. And then there was the little cross of wood he nailed together, and wrote in pencil, “This is the cross of Jesus.”  On the other side, he nailed a elongated diamond, centered on the cross, which made a shape somewhat like a star and scrawled, also in pencil, “This is the star of Jesus.” He was adamant that he made it for Sidney: I guess he had resolved that the job of teaching her theology fell to him.  And on Sidney’s part, she was never offered a piece of candy anywhere — at ballet, at the doctor, at a birthday party — that she didn’t ask for one to take home for her brother.  And as she has been doing with everyone her entire life, she made her brother laugh. Real belly laughter, with dimples to match, for hours on end.

The idyllic years lasted longer than any parent has the right to hope, but they did fade.  The bickering started and seemed to make up in its intensity for the entire decade of bliss that had gone before. Like  a storm cloud that passes over and shrouds any memory of spring, we survived those years, and the cloud passed.

Sometimes it seems that just when parents remark that things are most sublime, a shift comes and fills you with despair. And just when you despair of ever regaining the joy from an earlier time, the scene changes, the characters learn and evolve, and the sun comes back out from behind the clouds.  As we used to remind the child who was bereft when he was losing at CandyLand, “Zings can change!” Take a few deep breaths and wait a bit. You don’t know but what Queen Frostine isn’t the next card in the deck.

How have you dealt with sibling relations in your family?  What has worked well, and what hasn’t?


The details of an NPR segment I heard years ago about successful parenting of preschoolers are long lost now in a brain stuffed through the years with whether we’re out of cat food, who regretted that invitation, is the science fair project getting done, and are you sure that brown stain in the ceiling isn’t larger today than it was last week. But one poignant example from the story has never left me: the topic was yet another academic attempt to trace the common home characteristics among successful elementary school students, beyond the old maxim, nevertheless true, about gathering for dinner.  And the pediatric authority being interviewed described a Mack-truck sized factor so simple that as I listened I was nearly brought to tears.  The fact is, she said, successful children have been talked to by their parents.  And an overwhelming number of others haven’t.  She said, “There simply isn’t any substitute for the mother or father who, when dishing up the peas to the baby in the high chair, says, “These are peas! Peas are round! Peas are green!”

Just talk.  In talk we’re saying so many things: we’re saying that our children are on our minds, that in the death-struggle between them and the cat food inventory in our frazzled consciousness, they have won.  We’re saying that they are worth talking to. And of course, we’re also saying all the things we are actually saying about peas, what “round” and “green” means, and spoons and plates and microwaves and when that first wave of desperate hunger has passed, not putting the peas on your head. (Actually, it was usually ravioli, for some reason, and I’m amazed that my daughter’s scalp isn’t still coated with orange grease.)

I wish I had more details from that NPR feature.  I would like to have a podcast of it  on my phone, push “play” and force young parents to listen when they pronounce on what their children couldn’t possibly understand at “this age.”  “He’s only [two, three, four]. I mean, I’ve pointed to babies and said I have one in my tummy, but he doesn’t really understand any of it.”

How do you know what he understands, or doesn’t? And is it not incumbent on you to try to translate into understandable terms something as world-shattering as the sudden arrival of a screaming day-and-night competitor for his mother or father’s attention? Can’t you try to imagine and do everything you might to help him come to an understanding of the rude changes coming in his young life?

But it starts long before the first sibling is on his or her way.  If you see your life as a series of choices, whether wise or foolish, good or bad, unfortunate or fortunate, those are things about which you can talk to your child: “We live here because long ago I [learned to love old houses] [decided I hated snow] [fell in love with an aspiring rock star] [couldn’t stand my mother’s Wednesday-night, pan-fried liver].” Okay, your two-year-old may not know the word “aspiring,” but she has an intimate connection to the concept  “I want,” and it’s a very small leap from “I want” to “I want to be.”  And that’s aspiration.  By the time she’s three, you can even teach her the word.

(One of the sources of amusement and joy in our house was the fact that every erect speaking mammal knew the phrase “deferring gratification,” and what it meant, and the concept was discussed frequently relative to any number of chores and pleasures. Why the philosophy seems to have fallen by the wayside now that we are all adults has more to do with the dissipation that comes from age or the lack of a regular paycheck, but thankfully, that is a different book.)

It seemed we talked about everything. When the house was built. When Abraham Lincoln was president, relative to when the house was built. Who
Abraham Lincoln was, and why he was great. What slavery is. What war is.  What the Civil War was.  (My son’s expression for the Civil War was that it was a “brother war of the North against the South.” We got out the map for that one, and then had to explain that a map was a drawing of where we live, or other people live, pictured from way up above in the sky.)

We talked about seeds, and why we plant them. What would happen after we planted them, if we did certain things or didn’t do them. What kind of seeds they were.  What was supposed to grow from them and what we could do with those things. (Although only one soccer-sized watermelon appeared. That was another discussion.) What rain was. Why it was good, but also why sometimes we didn’t like it.  Why we all had things to do during the day — things we didn’t always want to do, like preschool and work. What would happen if we didn’t do those things: not “I’ll get fired and we’ll be homeless,” or “I’ll go to jail for truancy and you won’t have a mother,” but “We wouldn’t have any money for the baseball game,” and “You wouldn’t learn to count or read.” We talked about the cats, and why Gabriel didn’t like it when we grabbed his stomach and twisted it.  But how nice he was not to scratch us when we did. We talked about friends, and the nice and not-nice things they did, how we could advocate for ourselves while still being fair to them, and when we needed a teacher to intervene. We talked a lot about advocating for ourselves with teachers, too — because we found ourselves in defensive positions with ignorant teachers quite a bit. We talked realistically about life and its challenges. We talked a lot about God, love, beauty, family, history, books, music, movies, sports, and, of course, the stuff that goes in the potty.  (Why do all kids love that so much? Why do all young parents think it belongs on Comedy Central, or, if not, Facebook?)

When you think of a young mind as an empty slate on which all this information is written, creating a very rudimentary Encyclopedia Britannica of life, a foundation of general knowledge on which is built everything else when he or she gets into “real school,” it’s no wonder that the child who knows at least something about peas, the color green, babies, seeds, rain, jobs, maps, sports, fair play, stupid teachers, Abraham Lincoln and poop has a pretty sizable and priceless advantage in life.  And it doesn’t cost a thing.

What adult-sized topics have you talked about successfully with your child? What surprising topics has your child brought up that challenged you to dig deep  before answering?

G.K. Chesterton write about this in Orthodoxy, and while I don't think you must subscribe to all he does in that book to raise renaissance children, I think one element is crucial: you must have a sense of the miraculous, a sense of enchantment, a sense of the beauty of creation. And you must be able to convey that to your child.    Perhaps it requires seeing the world again through his eyes: the magic of a butterfly, the sheer, fragile iridescence of bubbles from a bubble jar; the heartbreak of little blue robins' eggs fallen from their nest; the strains of certain music that cause your baby's fat arms to pump.  These are things that we parents experience almost involuntarily when we welcome our newborns, but they can easily fall by the boards when we're tired and cranky.  Perhaps the challenge as a parent is to maintain that childlike sense of observation even as our children outgrow it. For it is true, is it not?, that all of life is a testament to beauty and wonder and joy.  If we lose that sense of surprise and delight, then it would be no surprise for our children also to lose it. And this entire task of raising renaissance children who then become renaissance adults is about encouraging them to retain their wonder at the world.

G.K. Chesterton writes about this in Orthodoxy, and while I don’t think you must subscribe to all he does in that book to raise renaissance children, I think one element is crucial: you must have a sense of the miraculous, a sense of enchantment, a sense of the beauty of creation. And you must be able to convey that to your child.   Perhaps it requires seeing the world again through four-year-old eyes: the magic of a butterfly, the sheer, fragile iridescence of bubbles from a bubble jar; the heartbreak of little blue robins’ eggs fallen broken from their nest; the strains of certain music that cause your baby’s fat arms to pump.  These are things that we parents experience almost involuntarily when we welcome our newborns, but they can easily fall by the boards when we’re tired and cranky, dealing with the terrible twos or the even-more-terrible teens.

Like many people who respond to the concept of raising Renaissance children, the seeds for the idea were planted in me at a young age. I grew up in a middle-class home in north central Florida, which contributed to my conviction that providing a rich array of educational enrichment to children doesn’t require great wealth.  These days it doesn’t even require that parents be well educated themselves, nor does it require having a two-parent home.  It is possible for nearly any parent, single or married, to open a child’s eyes and heart to the wonders of the world without private-school education, broad travel, or a large financial investment. It can be significantly more challenging to do so if your working hours are long enough that you rarely see your child, or if the culture with which you are surrounded is hostile to the concept. I do not want to minimize the challenges in your case if you are living in such an environment.  In the last chapter of this book, I’ll discuss some ideas for getting help if you have little or no support and yet you have a deep desire to encourage Renaissance values in your child. I would like to help you to believe that miracles can happen for you.

As for me, other than being born into a safe, stable home, my first miracle took place when I was four. My father, a modestly-paid professor of civil engineering at the University of Connecticut at the time, was awarded a sabbatical leave which took our family to Mexico for six months.  This was in 1959, and travel through Mexico was safe and fascinating.  At that very young age, I absorbed the colors, tastes and sounds of a culture quite foreign to mine, and it opened my eyes to the world beyond my world.  Although travel isn’t necessary to awaken a curiosity in children for other cultures and ideas, travel usually does have that impact on children and young people.  (For that reason, I encourage all parents to take advantage of as many safe opportunities for travel as might be presented to your children through their lives, which we will talk about in a later chapter: school trips, church mission trips, trips through extracurricular activities such as competitive sports or other games, musical performance groups, language groups –it’s remarkable the wide array of travel experiences that are available now.)  Although I was only four, many images and experiences from our time in Mexico stayed with me and left me permanently more open to different places, people and food.

But raising children is hard work. Manual work. You can feel, late in the day, as if your body simply will not carry you to the moment when they are safely in bed.  I remember falling in bed myself, once they were “down,” wearing an exhaustion that defies description. Perhaps the challenge as a parent is to maintain that childlike sense of observation even as we feel like we’re loaded down with fifty sacks of four, and even as our children, moving into the surly teen years, pretend to outgrow it. For it is true, is it not, that all of life is a testament to beauty and wonder and joy?  If we lose that sense of surprise and delight, then it would be no surprise for our children also to lose it. And this entire task of raising renaissance children who then become renaissance adults is about encouraging them to retain their wonder at the world.

Don’t despair if you realize that your sense of surprise and delight with the world has dissipated.  You can get it back, and I’ll write more about that in a later post.

In fact, one of the best blog posts.  Ever.

Here's the Angelika Kauffman painting in its entirety.

Four Children with a Basket of Fruit.

Isn’t it lovely?

Angelika (or “Angelica”) Kauffman lived from 1741 to 1807.

She was born in Switzerland and grew up in Austria.  Her father was a painter and taught her to paint. She was multi-talented, and had quite an illustrious career.  A real Renaissance child in her own right!

Okay, so this is, to me, anyway, amazing: I found the banner image you see on the blog yesterday evening. It had all the qualities I wanted — too many even to be able to explain here. I downloaded it and cropped it and posted it, all the while feeling. . .not right, you know. . .because that little angel-on-your-shoulder statement was posted to the right of the image: “Copyright restrictions may apply.” I knew it had to be dealt with. I told myself that the artist might well be someone who does contemporary old-master-style paintings, and he or she might be simply delighted to have his or her work cameoed (is that a verb?) on a blog and a book cover. Instant publicity, right?  Sales, right? But if we had to pay, we’d pay; I was just hoping it wouldn’t be too much. The image was perfect.

So today, when the publisher’s representative called me about some other details, I told her about finding the image, “borrowing it,” and the need for us to find out about rights.  (And, of course, the need for rights to be affordable.) She quickly said that if I would send her the link, she’d get right on it and see what she could learn.

Of course, have I ever been about to wait for someone else to do something like that? Noooooo. I  sent Amanda the link, but I also did some digging myself, and learned — glory be! — that the painting “Four Children and a Basket of Fruit” was painted by Angelika Kauffman around 1800.  It’s on a myriad of poster and oil painting reproduction sites because (yes, it’s true) it’s in the public domain!  The image is perfect for Raising the Renaissance Child — okay, to me it’s perfect — if you disagree, please let me know — and it’s mine to use forever, for anything.  What’s more, the details of Angelika Kauffman’s life will resonate with Renaissance Child fans.  More about that in the coming days.

Just one more way that I feel the guiding hand of Providence on me in this project.

I’ve dreamed about this book for many years.: first when my two children were small, and I saw them responding to a certain somewhat contrived environment that I intentionally created for them.  Later, as they went into their teen and high school years, I grieved that I could no longer write it, because I had failed in the attempt: they seemed to reject everything that I had so assiduously taught them, and raced into the arms of popular culture in all the most horrifying ways, to my way of thinking.

But then, as older parents with older children always reassure, they came back. Gradually, mostly in college, they concluded that our home and family had provided them with special, irreplaceable, cherished wisdom and values, and they even began to celebrate the odd petri dish in which they had grown into cognizant beings, able to make their own choices.

And they told me to write this book.

Maybe, ultimately, that’s why I decided to write Raising the Renaissance Child, after all: because my own children said it was a book that deserved shelf space, and that I was the right person to bring it into being.

Recently there’s been a bit of buzz about the Tiger Mom’s book.  I haven’t read it, and won’t until this is done and safely in the hands of the publisher – too fearful that the Tiger Mom’s voice or ideas will seep into mine.  I might agree with some of her techniques, many of her goals. But I recall that even the Tiger Mom admitted that her child-rearing method wasn’t altogether successful: that at least one of her children rebelled quite seriously, and it caused some relational problems.

Creating a Renaissance home caused no direct relational problems – but that’s not to say we didn’t have any.  The relational problems we had were either because I adopted too much of a zealot’s mentality, and lost my friendly nature as I saw my children temporarily pretend to reject our teachings, or because I myself didn’t live up to the Renaissance values that I espoused. In the ways that I caved personally to popular culture, they felt disappointed and betrayed.

Any endeavor like this, raising Renaissance children through the creation of a Renaissance home, can’t become an overly dogmatic practice.  One can’t be fanatical. One has to bend, and there must be joy in it.  It must be an idea – not an ideology.  I think ultimately, good child rearing is a conversation between loving parents and ever-more independent children.  Maybe that sounds namby-pamby, loosy-goosy, and frighteningly undisciplined.  But in these times, children have too many opportunities to create a secret life about which parents know nothing – the conversation is our attempt to keep ourselves in the mix.  If it’s a monologue pronounced by the parent and unquestioningly submitted to by the child. . .well, Mom or Dad, you’re kidding yourself.  If you’ve raised smart children, Renaissance children, they are going to question, they are going to think for themselves, and they are going to push back when they perceive your mandates don’t align with the values that have been fundamental in your home.  That’s a good thing: the same questioning they do with you will become the model for the questioning they will do with the world.  And that’s what raising the Renaissance child is all about: teaching our young people to reject the tawdry, to seek and to cherish the truth, and to create for themselves lives of beauty, optimism and hope, comprised of things that have lasted centuries and even millennia, and will continue to last.

This is a book for parents of children still-at-home, especially young children, and for soon-to-be-parents, and perhaps for grandparents who hope to apply the suggestions to their interactions with their childrens’ children.  It is not a book for parents whose children are grown. The problem with making parenting recommendations is that one is bound to be met with defensiveness from those whose parenting lives are now, for all intents and purposes, over.  We care too much about our kids, and feel too responsible for the choices we made as we raised them, to be able to accept any critiques, even indirect ones, with equanimity.  So if hostile lobs come from parents who feel guilty about a time in the past, I will state outright: this book was not written for you.

For the intended audience, do not worry if adopting all the suggestions in this book doesn’t feel right.  Take what works for you, and ignore what doesn’t. Most of these tools were ones that my family found worked for us, or other families found worked for them, but a family is a living and unique organism.  Your children will end by loving yours if you, and they, grow to embrace what distinguishes it from every other family on earth.  That’s the miracle of family life, and any true renaissance person knows how to cherish it.

Enjoy the quest.

I’m a professional writer, wife and mom, Anglican, sports fan (especially college football and basketball), music lover, book reader, frequent traveler, more often irritated than I care to admit, more indulgent of others than perhaps I should be — until I think how I, too, want to be indulged.

I think most problems in the world would be solved by laughter, prayer and taking baths instead of showers. Bourbon helps, too.

I’m writing a book about raising children to gravitate toward life-affirming things that have stood the test of time, and to choose those things independently, as young adults.  In my view, the things that last centuries or even millennia tend to be the things that we would want our children to recognize, learn from, absorb, and celebrate. The title of the book is Raising the Renaissance Child, and it will be published by Westbow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson. My plan is for the book manuscript to be completed by June 2013, and for the print version to be launched in late November that year.

I would be grateful if you would follow my blog and contribute your thoughts and suggestions.

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