My family loved reading the Boxcar Children.
My family loved reading the Boxcar Children.

My kids were raised on The Boxcar Children books.  We started reading this series with our first and continued with the next three.  The story starts with four orphaned siblings living and taking care of each other in an abandoned boxcar.  By the end of the first book they are found by their kind and rich (of course) grandfather.  Each subsequent book finds these four plucky kids solving some mystery relying on their wits and each other.

Over the years I’m sure that we have read most of the over 100 books in the series, many of them four times.  Peter and I enjoyed these books almost as much as the kids partly because the chapters are short, and in part because of the idealized version of family life, more specifically sibling relations, depicted.  Long after our kids outgrew the books, we still call those wonderful times when our children are cooperative and kind with each other “boxcar kid” moments.

Unfortunately, it seems like boxcar kid moments around our house are few and far between.  My kids actually get along with each other remarkably well most of the time, but we are a terribly verbal lot, and conversations seem to quickly disintegrate into ribbing, and not infrequently the ribbing takes the form of put-downs.  I periodically go on the war-path.

The following conversation took place a few years ago, and for some reason was faithfully recorded in my journal:

Me: OK guys, the put-downs are getting out of control around here.  It’s becoming a bad habit, so we’re starting a new tradition: a no-put down week.
Kid #2 (age 13): Aww mom, not this again!
Me: We are going to have a put-down jar.  Every time I hear a put-down the offender will owe the jar 25 cents.
Kid #1 (age 17):  Uh oh, she’s fantasizing about the boxcar kids again.  Mom, you know they’re fiction, right?  They are just the product of some lonely guy’s imagination.
Aside: (Their logic goes: Mom is a writer and leads a boring life; ergo, all writers are boring and lead lonely lives.)
Kid # 3 (age 11): Who says what’s a put-down?
Me: Me or Dad.
Kid #2:  That’s not fair!  You don’t get that “Idiot” is an affectionate nickname, right Idiot? (pointing to child # 3)
Kid # 3: Right, stupid.
Me: I hope you’ve got a lot saved up. This week’s gonna cost you.  No put-down week begins now.

The kids huddled together and talked (read: plotted), and several minutes later came en masse into the room with Peter and me to hang out.

Kid #1 addressing Kid # 2:  You are such a marigold.
Kid #2: Actually, dear sis, you are the marigold.
Kid #4 (age 8 and fairly dancing with glee, whispers to me): “Marigold” means butt-head.
Kid #3: Don’t tell, you marigold.
Kid #4: Hey mom, he called me a butt-head.
Kid #3: No, I didn’t, I called you a flower.
Kid #4: Mooommmm
Peter: Whose idea was it to have kids?
Kids # 1 and 2 (laughing): You’re both a bunch of marigolds.
Kids # 3 and 4: Moommm!

This is not the first nor likely the last time I’ll try to deal with the subtle and not so subtle put-downs that seem to plague our family life.  The problem is, I’m not really sure it’s a problem.  The line between teasing and put-down is a fine one, especially as your children become teens, and teasing can create family unity.

I want our home to be a safe place for all of us—a refuge from the colder more callous world.  To me that means a place where no one will call you stupid or idiot, and certainly not butt-head.  That much is clear to me.  What isn’t so clear is calling someone a jerk when he accidentally forgot to tell you that your friend called, or calling someone a butt head when they borrowed your iPod without asking.

It’s also not clear how much I should get involved.  When they were younger I strictly forbid the “S” words: stupid and shut-up.   When my eldest son came home from second grade and said, “Mom, I hate to tell you but there’s another “S” word,” I added that one and subsequently have added “sucked”.  I gave them substitute words for expressing anger.  I read them all 100 of the Boxcar Children books, for goodness sakes.  I try to set an example of kindness, but I also don’t want the role of Word Nazi.

And at this moment, what’s really not clear is what I should do about “marigold.”

Kid #2 whispers into Kid # 3’s ear
Kid  # 3: Moomm, he said my face looked like poop.
Kid #2 Mom didn’t hear, so it doesn’t count.
Peter: Now I remember- it was your idea to have kids.  I said let’s just get a dog, but you said (falsetto) “Noooo, let’s have kids.”

Me: OK, listen up you knuckle-heads…
Kids #1, 2, 3 and 4 (in unison): PUT DOWN!
Kid #3: Oh, that hurt.
Kid #2: My self esteem is ruined, probably for life.
Kid #1: We’re talking years of therapy here.

Peter: I would’ve even agreed to a lap dog, but no, you wanted kids—lots of kids.

As my quarter clinked in the jar, all four of my progeny walked off together laughing and giving each other high-fives and shoulder punches and, now that I think about it, looking distinctly boxcar kid-like.

Image credit: Janellie