I’ve spent a lot of time rolling this around in my mind, and I’m absolutely convinced that my children turned out so well because they spent their formative years in the rural Panhandle of Texas. I landed there by divine providence, lured by an incredible real estate bargain smack in the middle of a farming town inhabited by fifty Catholic families. The home’s history as the former convent and the two acres that came with the property sold me on the deal. My neighbors welcomed the unexpected oddity of my crew with warmth uncharacteristic of Germans. Not many city people pitched their tent in Umbarger, Texas, but I’ll be forever grateful that I did, because the benefits were phenomenal.
My children were steeped in the example of hard-working, clean-living farm families, and surrounded by a host of well-behaved children of all ages. But the single greatest thing that ever happened to my children was the effect the community had on me. Those wise women (and men) taught me by word and deed their secrets to successful parenting, and I feel duty-bound to pass them on. Judging from the relative helplessness of many of my children’s peers, we are just a generation away from losing our most valuable natural resource. There’s no hope for our country if we don’t get busy raising strong, self-sufficient citizens who live their faith.
The Umbarger Child-Rearing Method
1. Have lots of children
If this is out of the question, just skip on to #2, but I highly recommend it. The average family in Umbarger included at least six children who were seen as a blessing and a treasure. In the city, children are often treated as trophies and/or boat anchors. But in Umbarger, a new baby was universally recognized as hope for the future, not to mention an investment in human labor just six or eight years down the road. Babies were not feared. One woman told me, “I can’t get a new couch or a new car. The only new thing I can ever get is a baby, and that’s easy. I already have all the stuff.”
Having lots of children ensures that there will always be older ones to look after the younger ones. There’s no need to bother with play dates, because you can’t swing a cat without hitting a brother or sister who is anxious to embark on an adventure.
The biggest mistake I’ve seen my city peers make is the over-mothering of their children. I have a theory about this. We come equipped with the capacity to effectively mother a large herd of children. That’s probably why women are so good at multi-tasking. If you just have one or two kids, all that maternal energy focused at such a small target can’t help but overwhelm.
Here’s a perfect example. My sister set aside four months to send her one and only daughter off to college. The Umbarger way involves a two hour shopping spree at Walmart. If that. Some of the parents, when their children expressed their desire to go to college, just gave them a firm handshake and said, “Good luck.” And their kids went to college!
2. Plant them in a wholesome, faithful community
Faith is woven so deeply into life in the Texas Panhandle that it’s in the air you breathe. At the public school my children attended, the Baptist teachers used a code to wiggle through the separation of church and state. “Before we have lunch, let’s bow our heads.” My little Catholic children, accustomed to praying with eyes wide open, out loud, and in unison, were lost for a while. Finally, one of my boys asked, “Why do they make us bow our heads? I keep asking my teacher, but she won’t tell me.” At the time I was surprised they didn’t turn some missionaries loose on us. The Protestants didn’t understand the Catholics, but they weren’t hell-bent on “saving” us all, either.There was a pervasive sense of respect for religious freedom in that rugged country. It was definitely a “live and let live” kind of place.
The chronic exhaustion of many urban and suburban parents is undoubtedly fueled by keeping their children under constant surveillance. I quickly learned that hyper-vigilant parenting, so necessary in the city, was wasted energy in Umbarger. The church was the social hot spot, and they were forever having parties, dances and cook-outs. There was no such thing as an “adult” event, no matter how much beer was involved. The children, from the smallest toddler, ran loose and free over the grounds until the last table and chair was re-stacked and the parish hall was sparkling clean, to German specifications.
It took months before I could enjoy these events. I would spend the entire time racing around, frantic, asking people if they’d seen my youngest son. He was, and is, an adventurous soul, and at three, could be very slippery. I finally got it when one of my neighbors, weary from watching my never-ending search (and no doubt noticing my poor contribution to clean-up efforts) set me straight. “Relax,” she said. “You don’t have to watch him every minute. We’re all watching him.” Realizing that the entire community assumed responsibility for my offspring was incredibly freeing. And knowing that all eyes were on them just naturally encouraged excellent behavior.
3. Allow them to discover the value of a dollar
Farmers with large families don’t take money for granted. Whenever a frivolous trip, by Umbarger standards, is proposed, there’s a running joke my children can’t resist from our days on the prairie. “Remember, it’s not just the gas. You’ve got your belts, you’ve got your tires, you’ve got your spark plugs…”
In Umbarger money was hard to come by, and it wasn’t to be wasted or handed out indiscriminately to children. My neighbors had a weekly allowance formula that I followed religiously. It involved so many cents per year of age for each child, providing they completed all chores. The trick was to only take them to town to spend their money once a month, after they had amassed enough to actually buy something. When they reached the age when peer pressure weighed heavily, they just had to get real jobs to support lavish extravagances (like professional haircuts and such). It may sound extreme, but it worked.
4. Give them plenty of unstructured time
In Umbarger there was no money for eight kinds of after-school activities and assorted lessons. Even if there had been money, there would never have been enough time to haul all those kids around. The Umbarger kids did just fine learning from the grown-ups, from books and from each other.
Of course, the Panhandle landscape favors free-range parenting. It’s a lot easier to allow children the thrill of adventurous, independent discovery if you can see them wherever they are for a five mile radius, with only barbed wire and dirt roads between you.
5. Expect great things from them
During my time there, I never heard of a child failing a class or dropping out of school. Full-minded, intense effort was expected in every aspect of life. The expectations were high, and the children had no trouble meeting them.
My children received an elementary education that I would put up against any private school in the country, regardless of cost. They were taught by good farm wives who ran the Wildorado public school for a total of fifty students, grades K through 6. I still say my third child’s propensity for academic excellence was nurtured beyond measure by the size of his class in those early years. He shared the teacher’s attention with only two other students, and they were cousins. (1984 must have been a very bad year to have produced such a measly crop of children).
6. Love their socks off
Every child in Umbarger was valued and treated with respect. I’m sure there must have been a dark side to life there, but I spent enough time with those kids to recognize signs of low self-esteem, and it was quite rare. They had a culture that prized their children. Hard work and high expectations alone would never have produced such stellar results. Those kids were well-loved, and they knew it.
7. Teach them survival skills
If a child was old enough to walk and talk, they were old enough to contribute. They labored side by side with their parents, and by the time they were ten, they knew how to do everything. The girls could cook, sew and preserve food. The boys were competent mechanics, carpenters and farmers. They were taught how to do things, and they were trusted to do them right, which made the teenagers of Umbarger the most mature young people I’ve ever met. When one of them babysat for me, it was embarrassingly clear that they could run my house better than I could.
They put on a breakfast feast once a month after Sunday Mass to raise money for the youth group, with very little adult assistance. They more than pulled their weight each fall preparing for the sausage festival, an event that drew consistent crowds and kept the parish in the black for over eighty years. They were universally adept at changing beds, tires and babies.
I heard that one of the Umbarger boys happened to be living in New Orleans, just a few blocks from the first levy that broke after hurricane Katrina. Do you think he ended up in a shelter for weeks on end, or sitting on the roof of a swamped house crying, “Where’s George Bush?” God bless the people who did, but he wasn’t one of them. In no time flat, he found his way home to Umbarger. I can see him in my mind’s eye, rolling quarters at the family table and plotting how to re-build his life, without a thought of federal aid.
We moved back to the city in 1995, and it took us all quite some time to re-learn skills for urban living. Since then, my children have been exposed to great diversity of behavior and belief in their travels and studies. I am now the mother of a full grown woman and three hairy-legged men. That early imprinting marked them with a profound wholesomeness and good-heartedness that the world, so far, has been powerless to erase.
You can subscribe to the Umbarger Method of parenting wherever you are. But if the whole country goes to hell in a hand basket, my advice is to get to the Texas Panhandle as fast as you can. Those people know how to survive.*
*I left over fifteen years ago. I’m guessing they still haven’t recovered from taking me to raise. Please don’t tell them I sent you.