Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Familial Learning in Cheaper By the Dozen

I mentioned recently that I read Cheaper By the Dozen aloud to N.; I also read him the sequel Belles on Their Toes and we watched the 1950 Cheaper By the Dozen movie starring Myrna Loy and Clifton Webb (the 3rd feature-length movie N. has watched -- he loved it, even though the movie gives everything from the costumes to the sexual politics of the Gilbreth parents' pioneering 1920s career partnership a 1950s sheen).  As the books describe, the Gilbreth children attend public school but their father supplements their learning with an ambitious home education program.  In addition to taking responsibility for chores, shopping, and the family budget, the children learn French and German, various large-number arithmetic mnemonics, astronomy, and Morse code at home.  The children describe their father's various instruction projects with bemusement, but also appreciation.

Because the Gilbreth parents are motion-study experts who specialize in efficiency and time-saving, some of Mr. Gilbreth's educational schemes derive from his desire to make seemingly wasted time productive.  "He was a natural teacher, and believed in utilizing every minute" (22).  He paints the solar system on the dining room and Morse code on the lavatory walls at their summer cottage and installs Victrolas playing French and German language lessons in their bathrooms in their regular home.  I was especially struck with this emphasis on passive learning or learning through osmosis (in addition to the active learning Gilbreth inspires with games, family competitions, and prizes); it has surprised me how much my son has learned for example from eating supper daily on a U.S. map placemat and more recently lunch on a placemat showing the periodic table of the elements.  Children can absorb information almost without noticing. 

But passive learning is only part of Mr. Gilbreth's approach.  The Gilbreth family is shown to be  tight-knit and committed to each other from the father on down the line of twelve children.  They model their family life on that of an enlightened, well managed company, each member contributing to the successful attainment of the group's goals.  Though he is pioneering a field of work, Mr. Gilbreth is thoroughly engaged in lives of his family.  Hating what he calls "unavoidable delay" (such as eating meals!) to be wasted, Mr. Gilbreth always looks for ways to make educational conversation with his children.
"If a factory was nearby [when the family was picnicking] he'd explain how you used a plumb line to get the chimney straight and why the windows had been placed a certain way to let in the maximum light.  If the factory whistle blew, he'd take out his topwatch and time the difference between when the steam appeared and when we heard the sound.
"'Now take out your notebooks and pencils and I'll show you how to figure the speed of sound,' he'd say.  
"He insisted that we make a habit of using our eyes and ears every single minute.
"'Look there,' he'd say.  'What do you see? Yes, I know it's a tree.  But look at it.  Study it.  What do you see?'" (23).
The children seem to develop significant expertise in motion study because the entire family can't help but be immersed in their father's interests.  If their father was a relentless explainer of facts, however, their mother understood the power of narrative.  "It was Mother who spun the stories that made the things we studied really unforgettable" (23).
"If Dad stopped to explain the construction of a bridge, she would find the workman in his blue jeans, eating his lunch high on the top of the span.  It was she who made us feel the breathless height of the structure and the relative puniness of the humans who had built it.  Or if Dad pointed out a tree that had been bent and gnarled, it was Mother who made us sense how the wind, eating against the tree in the endless passing of time, had made its own relentless mark" (23).
 Such a lovely description of Mrs. Gilbreth's conversation.  As much as these books are funny (and they definitely are!), they are also studded with little gems of parenting and educational wisdom.

[Check out lots of other bookish posts at this week's installment of The Children's Bookshelf.]


Erica MomandKiddo said...

I was so fascinated by the Gilbreth family when I read these books as a kid. I remember finishing the books and then going to the library to read more about what happened to the family and being horrified to find out that the father died early. Thanks for sharing at TCB.

Melissa Wiley said...

My favorite Mrs. Gilbreth quote comes from a short housekeeping manual she wrote, a book which applied motion study principles to basic household chores. A rather dizzying book! The bedmaking method, for example, involves a strategically located chair for holding the sheets until the proper moment. After pages and pages of laying out a plan for running a home with ultimate efficiency, she says almost offhandedly that if you have a new baby in the house, you can forget about all this efficiency stuff for a year at least. Ha! Given the number of babies she had, I found that terribly comforting. :)

Fanny Harville said...

Luckily for her, Mrs. Gilbreth had a cook and handyman as full-time employees! One of my favorite parts of the books is the description of Mrs. Gilbreth modeling her "efficiency kitchen" for a newsreel -- a kitchen she had to make from scratch before the cameras arrived because she didn't cook!

Thanks for your comments, Erica and Melissa.