The sound of children's voices lifted in song is one of the sweetest on the planet, which is why I always tear up a bit at school performances.
On the other hand, as one's precious children reach the ages my cherubs have attained (9, 7 and 5), those same angelic voices can more often be heard screaming in indignation. "DAVID! STOP IT!" (Or fill in the other names.)
Now the parenting books will tell you that the stupidest thing a parent can say when coming upon a quarrel is, "What happened?" Still, when my kids are in the midst of it, I nearly always ask, "What happened?"
And they tell you, and tell you, and tell you. And if you're really dumb, you can easily get the whole argument restarted merely by attempting to figure out what happened. And pretty soon, you're raising your voice to be heard over their shouts and offering quite a role model for how adults settle these matters.
Benjamin is furious with David because, very quietly, David, 7, has been whispering things to Ben's new plush tiger that are guaranteed to get under Ben's skin. Very softly, so that Ben can clearly hear but grown-ups cannot, in a sing/song voice, he croons: "I'm going to make a nice tiger stew out of you. Oh, yes. Delicious tiger stew. Just the thing. Yum yum yum." Benjamin, 5, is half angry and half amused (they can change moods faster than they spill apple juice). And while the tears are still wet on his cheeks, his eyes light up as he figures out a way to pay David back.
Dinner time also provides endless opportunities for poor manners. My husband's eyes widened the other night as he watched what was actually a fairly typical display (they have usually eaten -- can't say dined -- before he gets home). First, Jonathan, 9, protests that if he is required to eat his sweet potato he will explode. I shoot him a look, but David, seeing an opening for mischief, shouts, "He's gonna blow!" as he and Ben simultaneously duck under the table. After a few seconds pass and their brother remains intact, they peek out, grinning.
Next, Jonathan lets fly with an enormous, earth-shaking burp. He smiles at his accomplishment, and the other two express their admiration. Only severe threats of dessert denial calm the situation.
Civilizing the little barbarians is a slow process, but I figure C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" must help. The tales are rich with all the things boys adore: adventure, danger, children, dragons, witches, knights, castles and God. And Lewis, an Oxford don who wrote the series after becoming a Christian late in life, conveys the simple virtues -- like honor and courage -- that were once taken for granted but are now difficult (not impossible) to find in literature. Children do things that are "wicked" as well as noble, and conscience as much as curiosity or fear guides their steps.
Though Lewis wrote these in the 1950s, they are surprisingly up to date. Feminists might not expect the female characters to rival the males in the arts of war, for example, or in courage, yet Lucy and Susan march into battle along with their brothers, and the other heroines show just as much pluck as the boys.
Lewis has a little fun at the expense of "progressive" schools, but his observations, amusing at the time they were written (Eustace comes upon a dragon but fails to recognize it at first "because he hasn't read any of the right books"), seem sadly prescient now. He describes "Experiment House" as the sort of place where students don't learn much math, Latin or French, but they do learn how to run when the bullies are after them.
My children adore these stories and have taken them so much to heart that their speech is sprinkled with Britishisms. Most of the time this is fine, as when I ask David where his glasses are and he replies, "I shall endeavor to discover." But when Ben called one of David's friends a "twit," we had to send him to his room.
I explained later that true knights never call names unprovoked, and that settled the matter.