learning a bit of family history

Yesterday we visited my dad on the farm. While there, I helped orchestrate an interview that prompted him (Dennis) to share details about his growing up years, recorded here for posterity’s sake.

Dennis grew up on the farm, which has been in the Wolters family since 1892. To go to elementary school, he walked two miles to the one-room country schoolhouse in the neighborhood. One winter day, he walked all the way home with no gloves. He got pneumonia. His mother scolded him and told him it was the result of not wearing anything on his hands in such cold weather.


Dad is the blond boy in the second row from the blackboard, third one back. His four siblings are in the photo too.

When he was growing up, weddings were held right on the farms. He named several families in the neighborhood who had built a garage or new shed in order to have a space to host these gatherings. As a kid, he never complained about going to such functions (or to church either). They took what ever opportunities that presented themselves to get off the farm and socialize.

Once he completed eighth grade, he rode the bus to school in Little Falls, about 10 miles from the farm. Grammar was a challenge for him in high school. They expected him to know what a subject and a verb were, he recalled, but he’d never learned that in grade school. After graduating from high school, he did a short stint in the Army. It was then he knew he definitely wanted to be a dairy farmer. His peers in the Army laughed at him. They believed he didn’t have enough money to farm. But he was determined.

He returned to his home and told his father Fred he wanted to buy the farm. Fred was a bit reluctant to sell, but his son gave him an ultimatum: sell me this farm or I’ll find another one to buy. So in 1965, Dennis purchased the farm where he grew up, 120 acres of land, 12 cows, plus all the buildings and machinery for $12,000. A hundred dollars per acre was the going rate at that time. It was a contract for deed arrangement. He had to make an annual payment, and if he wasn’t able to pay the portion of interest plus principle that was due, he lost it all. Making the first few installments were a challenge, but he managed to scrape by.

What he didn’t tell my sons, but I happen to know, was that he gradually added more cows and his income went up. Then he bought nearby land, increasing the size of the current farm to 359 acres. He has never taken out an operating loan. His approach, which has seen him through more than 50 years of farming, is save in advance and pay as you go. Now his son Wayne has taken over the majority of the day-to-day farm responsibilities (and the same business approach.) Dennis still plays an important role in getting all the animals fed and cared for daily; retirement isn’t in his vocabulary. They’re currently milking 132 cows. This is still considered a small family farm. (You’ve got to keep expanding just to stay in business, it seems.)

One of the unexpected silver linings in all this time off from school is that children can pursue learning opportunities with more input from their elders. We can encourage them to collect information from previous generations that may help them better understand their personal heritage and even perhaps their identity.


taking superheroes off their pedestal

I took my son to a superhero birthday party on Saturday. It was at the home of the boy my son would probably call his best friend. It was a drop-off party – as in parents aren’t invited. I guess kids-only parties start right around the fifth birthday, and we’re just four months into the five-year-old territory, so I’m still getting used to the idea.

My son came home talking about the ninja toy the birthday boy got as a gift. The “light green ninja” had a backpack on, with green discs inside. My son called them pennies but the kids in the know quickly corrected him, he told me. Other times my son has been at this home he has come home asking when I am going to buy him superhero Legos.

For the past few years, this friend of his has been his primary source of information about superheroes. We don’t watch them around here. We don’t buy them either. Only occasionally can I be persuaded to read a book about them. At this age, peers already influence a child’s preferences about play more than any other source of input. And these kids are getting the script from the cartoon makers. (What ever happened to true creative play?)

Am I the only one that thinks this superhero thing is a little off base? And what can I do about it? Take a this-too-shall-pass approach? Find some five-year-old boys for my son to play with who don’t talk about superheroes incessantly? (Are there any to be found in this country?) Balance out peer input with stories that do NOT promote violence as the solution a problem or do NOT teach that strength equals power?

How do we teach boys about the value of humility and meekness? Yes, meekness. As in strength under control.

learning how to work

On Tuesday I was among the pool of jurors who received questioning from the judge for a specific trial set for this week. I was seated in the jury box along with 12 others, behind a row of alternates. We each had to introduce ourselves to the judge. The introduction that struck me the most went something like this, “My name is Bee. I’m 22 years old. I don’t have a job. I don’t want a job. I just wanna be free to live my life. I enjoy sports – football, basketball, running… I work out about three hours a day. I played football for Hamline University, but I dropped out because of too much debt….” He went on to talk about recent fishing trips, and his two dogs.

“How do you feed your dogs if you don’t work?” the judge asked him. I was relieved the judge had said something that might make this boy think, but based on his response, I was afraid the comment was lost on the poor soul.

The incident got me thinking about how parents pass along a value for work. One way is by example. It also helps to assign children responsibilities around the home so that they feel they are contributing members of the family and see first hand how each person contributes for the benefit of all. I also turn to books to reinforce important values.

Last evening we read the book One Hen by Katie Smith Milway. It is an inspiring story of a young boy in Ghana who gets a loan to buy a hen. He sells the extra eggs from the hen and saves the money to buy another hen. After he builds his flock to several hens, he saves money so he can return to school. As we were reading, my son asked if we could get chickens just like the boy and sell them at the market, just like the boy did. At the end, we both enjoyed reading about the real boy whom the story is based on, a boy who was young and struggling when someone gave him a chance.

Perhaps that was Bee’s problem. He’d never had the opportunity to struggle. Everything had been too easy for him. Now, how do I ensure my boys don’t suffer from that same syndrome?

failures and successes in teaching thankfulness

Last week one day our older son was complaining about what I was cooking for dinner, complaining that he never gets to eat what he wants, complaining, complaining, complaining.

I asked him to list ten things he is thankful for. He told me “no” and was promptly sent to timeout. His condition for release was to complete the list. It took some time for his “I’m not going to do it” attitude to transform, but after several minutes passed, he decided that he didn’t want to remain in timeout indefinitely. The first two items on his “thankful” list were toys and desserts. At one point he got stuck and needed a bit of prompting – a few more ideas from his parents to which he agreed he was thankful. A bit more whining was also a part of the process, but he did come up with ten items. And we enjoyed a pleasant complain-free dinner together after that.

talking to strangers

“He seems to be at ease striking up a conversation,” my friend observed about my son while we sitting on the picnic tables at Connie’s Creamy Cone. My older boy was talking to another four-year-old, comparing notes about what it’s like to have little brothers. The other boy had two.

“I haven’t discouraged that,” I admitted. I have explained to our four-year-old that he shouldn’t accept candy and shouldn’t get into a car with someone he doesn’t know, but I don’t think it’s necessary to say that they can’t talk to strangers. I do it all the time at the grocery store, the post office… Sometimes it’s the only form of adult interaction I get during the work day.

She agreed that worst-first thinking is not the desired outcome. But, am I doing enough? How does one strike the right balance?

holding on to the right perspective

Today it feels like no event has met my expectations and no one is helping me stick to my agenda (getting tons of writing done and the house in order), but the most frustrating part of it is my attitude, which irritates even me. Of course, I don’t expect that I’ll enjoy every second of this business of parenting, but charity begins at home, right?

So, what’s the solution?

(Tell me what you’d do.)

February 29th

February has an extra day this year, I explained to my son this morning. “An extra day to play,” he concluded.

A gentleman at Aldi store gave us his shopping cart without taking the quarter I offered him. An extra day to do a good deed, he demonstrated.

Three inches of damp, slushy snow covered our driveway. An extra day to build a snowman, we decided.

The snowman turned out toddler size. All the easier for the boys to add facial features.

What was your motto for this day?

groundhog’s day

I think my older brother was in kindergarten the year he decided to have a Groundhog’s Day party. On February 1st, he called up one of our grandmothers and invited her over. She came the next day, along with several of her daughters. I don’t think we did anything specifically related to groundhogs, but it was an excuse to get together.

I told my son this story and he was ready to call up his grandpa and invite him to a Groundhog’s Day party. Too bad we live so far away (and grandpa is so tied down with dairy farming.)

three-year-old logic

“If you love us why do you go to work everyday?” our son asked his daddy. Though we explained dad goes to work BECAUSE he loves him, I’m not sure how much of that concept he grasped.

When you’re three, love is spelled T-I-M-E.