Like many parents, Jolie and I stumbled upon parenthood with little understanding of what it entails. After more than half a century in this role, we have a better idea. Nothing definitive, but better.
The first two years are mostly “back and forth” as infants eat, sleep and poop. But at some point, they lose their appearances in Bert Lahr or Winston Churchill and start to develop. Parental responsibilities go beyond simple maintenance and start in earnest. Before exposing children to the world outside kindergarten, it is important to come to an understanding with them about the behavior.
When the kids were around 5, 3, and 1, we lived in Colorado. The Denver Post reported that the city was a magnet for runaway children across the country. They were welcomed and exploited by the people of the street. We started to worry. How could we raise our own children to be responsible, service-oriented citizens without driving them out of their homes with overly strict efforts?
At the start of our marriage, we agreed to cultivate two behavioral characteristics to strengthen our own bond: honesty and courtesy. I had grown up in a household where yelling was the norm, so I was lacking in courtesy. Jolie’s home environment was happier than mine. But we worked on those traits honestly, together.
As the children’s understanding grew, we introduced them to honesty and courtesy. These ground rules applied to all of us. The parents did not yell at the children; the children did not yell at the parents; no one yelled at anyone. We also did not behave discourteously in any other way. If we did, we had to admit it, honestly. It was a difficult and high standard to maintain, but in the grand scheme of things it seems to have worked out well for all of us.
When the children started school, we sent them this advice: “You are going to be away from us longer and longer as you get older. We can’t monitor or correct you like we do at home, but you already know right from wrong. You just need to be aware of your behavior wherever you are. If you make a mistake, admit it and accept the consequences.
In other words, we encouraged them to watch their own behavior, make their own decisions, and take responsibility for those decisions. It didn’t work out perfectly. The years have produced many anecdotes about what happened when you got angry. Like the unexplained grape juice stain on the wall in the family room. But overall we’re happy with how we’ve all evolved. Half a century later, we still love each other, and that includes our children’s spouses.
As the kids got older, Mom decided she wanted to become a chiropractor. While the kids were in school, she started pre-med classes at Colorado State University. This meant that everyone had to participate and help around the house, so that the housework was divided among the family. Some were made on purpose.
When mom, then 42, entered college of chiropractic in Portland, the kids took full ownership of the business. They knew that if they didn’t support her Mom would give up and come home. Nobody wanted the responsibility!
We settled in Tumwater, a two hour drive from mom’s apartment in Portland. My job often required me to be away for a week or 10 days at a time, so we imposed a heavy-duty housekeeping rule: only family in the house when parents are gone.
When the Tumwater School District found out what was going on they weren’t happy, but the kids went to class regularly and did their homework as much as they ever did, so we heard nothing directly. We also had a fail-safe backup. Our neighbor Kathy, whose children were about the same age as ours, served as an emergency surrogate. I don’t think we’ve ever had to call on her in this role.
The year 1986 was banner. We celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary, mom got her doctorate in chiropractic and started practicing, her mom celebrated her 90th birthday, her daughter, Linda, married, and her son, Dan, graduated from school secondary. Son Tom was still two years old. Years later, it was Tom who observed, “You didn’t kick us out of the nest. You have just taken the nest.