Friends look at me askance and wonder how on earth I could choose to house and feed four extra pre-teens (well three pre-teens and one teen-ager) in addition to my two boys. It is an unusual thing to do in these times of small families and private space. But as a family, my boys and I have chosen this arrangement. Oh it has its moments of stress and difficulty, but, it has innumerable virtues that only those from large families can comprehend. As of Monday I will have two girls, 11 and soon to be 14, and two boys, soon to be 13 and 15. They'll mix with my children, two boys, 7 1/2 and 12.
Beyond a certain touch of personal insanity and masochism, my house is large enough. I've two rooms to spare. One had been for the au pair, the other a living room. But, when it's just the three of us, we don't ever use these rooms. They might as well be closed off. We're an odd family with no TV, nor a family computer (mine is for me alone), nor another such object around which we might cluster in a family room or salon; we happily enjoy our "family time" in the kitchen, or outside on the terrace. I also take the hackneyed statement, "the more the merrier," with nary a grain of salt. Whatever the potential disasters, it is nonetheless true that with more children boredom is just not an option. Life becomes a party. And yes, with a house that is larger than we three need, the mortgage is commensurate. Hosting four children does bring in a bit to help ends meet at the end of the month.
For myself, I've imported kids to play with my children, to exchange, to learn from, and to live alongside. My boys are benefiting from the need to welcome, respect and be considerate of others. They share their space, take their turn in the bathroom and get to spread amongst six the burden of household chores and errands. Justice is paramount: together we make up a calendar of the various chores to be handled on a daily basis. Coupling up (e.g. the youngest and the eldest will do dishes together), and collaborating when the going gets tough -- I've five cords of wood on order that will need stacking--is necessary. Many hands make light work of just about any task.
For the children it's a mini-sleep-away school. A prep-school it is not, but they're in outside lodging and need to bend to my not very onerous expectations and requests. They're testing their limits, distancing themselves from their parents, striking out, and learning autonomy (particularly as concerns their homework) in a safe environment with plenty of good food and warmth.
For the parents, they've put their children in the care of this odd American who speaks fluent and fast French, cooks up a storm and promises lots of organic meals, light-handed parenting and a certain regularity and firmness balanced with a good sense of humor and the ridiculous. They're all relieved, and more than a bit pleased that I've no TV in the house. We all want our kids to read more (goodness don't we all!), and they hear tales of chess playing, backgammon, cards and baking bread with a hint of nostalgia and wistfulness. If the Steiner/Waldorf world does one thing, it brings together the many of us who flee the threat of media-overdose and its nefarious effects on our children. However, few have gone so far as to banish the TV completely. Thus these kids will get their fair share when they go home on the weekends, no doubt.
In fact, a common trait of the kids I'm boarding is a touch of hyper-activity and difficulty concentrating. Something that is more and more common in our overly electronic world, and a frequent trait in children who come later in life to the Waldorf schools. They've each been to visit or are scheduled to begin visiting speech and writing therapists to bring them up to speed. Alert, friendly, good-hearted, yet struggling with the basics of reading and writing. They're loath to take up books for pleasure, preferring movement, or a computer screen (if it were available). I hold out this torch of a promise that maybe, just maybe, with no other options open to them, they might pick up a book or two for pleasure during their time in my house. At the very least there'll not be a battle over TV after school and getting home-work done.
I've now readied the rooms, made the beds, vacuumed and mopped the floors and dusted the surfaces. All is ready for Monday afternoon and the arrival of my beasties. Other years we welcomed au pairs and cooking assistants into our lives, now we welcome children. My boys take it in stride, and truly, I think they'd miss the presence and warmth of the extra bodies. Certainly, they'd miss the regularity and variety of my week day dinners. Nothing like having an army to feed to get me moving in the kitchen.