Teach Your Children Well

The Little House, our first structure on the farm.

I’ve never pushed woodworking on my daughters. My shop door has always been open to my family, and I’m happy when they elect to hang out there or even help a bit. Perhaps I’m making a serious mistake, but I cannot bear to impose even the most basic skills upon them – sharpening, sawing, drilling, planing, whatever.

Though I know these skills would serve them well, I fear I would inadvertently drag them into the deepest end of my personal obsession. I know this because I have been there, gasping for breath and trying to simply tread water.

Shortly after our family moved to Arkansas in the early 1970s, my parents bought an 84-acre farm outside Hackett on Hill Top Lane. The plan was to design and build a gorgeous home with our own hands and move there, away from the city. We’d raise strawberries in the farm’s bottomland. My mom promised me I could raise goats.

The nice part about this plan was my parents bought a drafting table and a huge quantity of books on carpentry, architecture, hand tools and folkways. I was interested in all of these things and devoured everything I could about water witching, saw sharpening and Prairie-style architecture.

The miserable part of the job was the work itself. My first memory of our farm was digging post holes for the so-called “Little House,” our family’s first foray into Early Rural Hippie Architecture. The foundation was made of reclaimed telephone poles that needed to sit on footers below the frost line. So into the holes we went with tiny spades.

I know this isn’t true, but I felt like we spent almost every weekend at the farm, installing a compost toilet, nailing on decking boards, digging fence post holes, startling the local turkeys and armadillos.

The Big House, early on in its construction. 

Construction took years. I was probably about eight or nine years old when it began, and by the time I was in junior high we started on the “Big House.” This was an enormous structure with a greenhouse, a huge kitchen for my mom and a beautiful two-story stone chimney. The kids would have their own part of the house, separate from the adults. There would be sleeping porches and a gorgeous view of the Boston Mountains.

By this time my sisters and I were far more interested in our friends than working outside without air conditioning. We resisted every effort to drag us to the farm on the weekends. And eventually my parents relented. My dad continued to work there almost every weekend (as far as I can remember) until my parents divorced when I was 21.

Working on the farm made a deep mark on me. It compelled me to escape Arkansas for the city (I chose Chicago) and do something with my brain instead of my hands and my back. While in college, people asked me what it was like growing up in Arkansas. I would reply: “Just watch the movie ‘Mosquito Coast.’ I consider it a documentary.”

But here’s the funny thing: Three years after graduating from journalism school, I was taking a night course in furniture making. I had set up shop on our back porch in Lexington, Ky. I was reading Fine Woodworking magazine and was back to drowning myself on books on furniture, architecture and mountain craft. In 1996, I sealed my fate by taking a job with Popular Woodworking magazine.

Sometimes I don’t know if I should thank my father (now deceased) or what. It’s complicated.

So I decided to let my daughters find their own way. They know what handmade furniture is like, and they genuinely appreciate it – our house is filled with the stuff. And my shop door is still open to them if they ever decide to stick a toe into this giant lake.

But I’m just not strong enough, willful enough or obsessed enough to push them in.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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28 Responses to Teach Your Children Well

  1. johncashman73 says:

    I have always had an evolving list of things I would like to do, and things I would avoid. Number one on my avoid list was to never teach my ex how to sharpen things.

  2. jessamyn says:

    I have such feels about this! My parents bought an old farmhouse when I was 2 and basically worked on it until they divorced when I was 11, at which point there was only pokey deferred maintenance done to it until now.

    And the thing wasn’t the house (though that idea of working every weekend has stuck with me and I have no idea how to do Down Time, just Moar Projects) but it was my fancy college-educated parents moving to what was (then) a farming community and just saying WE LIVE HERE NOW. So I grew up actually rural but they were only play acting it. At the same time me and my sister became fancy college educated people, and I live in a more rural community and she’s closer to the suburb where we grew up.

    Neither of us spends shop time in the basements of our house. Both of us can handle power tools and solo house maintenance. The unfinished project that was my parents house is still there, still waiting for someone to love it. What ever happened to yours?

    • My dad sold the farm about 10 years ago and used the money to buy his house in Charleston, S.C.

      And now me and my sisters are taking care of that home. Weird world.

      Your “play acting” comment cut to the bone for me. We were the same. Despite the fact that were the Beverly Fraudbillies, the experience gave me a deep appreciation for the struggles of our neighbors and to never ever dismiss country folk as stupid. They are most definitely not.

  3. Michael W. O’Brien says:

    Hi Chris,
    What an insightful and thoughtful blog today about raising your wonderful daughters and allowing them to freely choose their own paths of vocation and advocation.
    My dear Dad built our small first and only home too in 1947 in Tampa, Florida, and I since I was only 5, I was so not much help to him. He was a master machinist by trade and a carpenter by advocation and by necessity. He could build anything and repair everything including inventing and making the first ever
    “ Leatherman type” multiuse tool and building a full sized portrait camera, both of which I still own in perfect working condition. He taught me how to build many things and repair numerous items around the home, and for that I am eternally greatful to him. Slowly over the years I have gravitated toward woodworking as one of my two major hobbies, and thanks to you mostly by handtool woodworking using your excellent articles, blogs and books for instruction and guidance. And I sincerely thank you for that.
    Happy Holidays.
    Michael W. O’Brien
    Alabama

  4. Matt887 says:

    Great read today Chris. Thanks for sharing part of your childhood with us.

  5. Rick says:

    Although I’m from California I’ve lived in Arkansas 34 years so I can see how difficult it must have been as a kid to work outside without the air-conditioning. That is one reason I have central heat and air in the shop. I think you are wise to not push your kids into something they may not enjoy. Teach them the value of hard work and to develop their talents to the best of their abilities. They will find what they are passionate about. I’m sure your dad was proud of the way you developed your talents even though they were different than his.

  6. potomacker says:

    Ad astra per aspera. Children are too young to recognize the quality of their life lessons until they are adults. Personally, I doubt whether you would do the same for any son as you have decided how to raise your daughters

  7. Jonathan Schneider says:

    Wise

  8. Roland Stewart Chapman says:

    You got back to it quicker than I did , Mr Schwarz , I hung out in the city and resisted for fifty years

  9. Penn Ira A says:

    Absolutely loved the line about “Mosquito Coast” being a documentary. Years ago I told my sons that the movie”Escape from New Youk” was a documentary. I still feel that way.

  10. Fancy Lad Woodworking says:

    This brings back a lot of memories of my own childhood. I moved around a lot as a child and as far back as I remember, my dad was always doing renos on the homes. He built his first home when I was 12 and I remember him spending all his spare time on it. At the time, I was torn between wanting to help and being resentful that he didn’t have enough time to do ordinary “dad” stuff. He wasn’t super interested in teaching me and I wasn’t that interested in learning what he was doing (although I eagerly picked up nails off the ground for 5c/nail).

    After I bought my first house and attempted extensive renos on it, I regretted not spending more time trying to learn from him when I was younger. I also in hindsight regretted that he didn’t try and teach me more. I think though it could have just as easily pushed me away if he had forced me to learn. Regardless, I’m fortunate enough that my father is still alive and in good health and now that I’m willing, he’s a great source of knowledge for me.

  11. Marge Pfleiderer says:

    While I can certainly appreciate the choice you made, and I hope your daughters truly felt they could have walked in any time, my experience was very different. My dad was not particularly handy. My grandfathers and uncles were, but that was long enough ago that no one considered teaching a girl anything about tools or building. When I was off on my own in NYC, I finally gave up on making a living in theatre, and walked into a hole in the wall cabinetmaking shop down the street from me. And then my education finally began. Better late than never, but it would have been great to learn some of the basics when I wasn’t worrying about paying rent and eating.
    I’m assuming – hoping – that your daughters have at least picked up some basics and are comfortable using tools. One never knows what the future will hold, so education is never a bad idea. No one was more surprised than me when I used algebra and geometry to solve problems as a woodworker!

    • tsstahl says:

      “… I hope your daughters truly felt they could have walked in any time…”

      Us internet time codgers remember that Chris used a workbench as furniture in the house at one point. Good for doing homework on and sticking body appendages in the vise, just to see who much you can take–not that any children I’ve ever known would do that. Nope, not at all, especially my two little bas-..bastions of manners.

  12. jayedcoins says:

    Thanks for sharing this one, Chris. I’ve never been and never will be a farm boy in any sense of the word, but I think we all have analogous experiences and you really hit on that.

  13. Elizabeth says:

    I’m on the flip side of you – I’m a daughter and my dad is the OG woodworker. My dad never asked any of his kids to join him in the shop but I just was always innately interested. My dad always let me do projects on my own terms, never forced me into doing a project his way, and let me fail as often as I needed to. In my teenage years my parents had an abundance of nice firewood as I pushed my designs into places I didn’t yet have the skills or experience for but I think he understood I learned the most by just trying. He also trusted me not to be an idiot in the shop and let me work with tools far earlier than I think most parents would think are appropriate. I could not use the laithe, table saw, jointer, or drill press alone but other than that the shop was fair game whenever I wanted as long as I put everything back, which I did – or I’d leave notes saying it was in use so he knew it wasn’t left out. In addition to that, he also was completely accepting of our different design aesthetics and would enthusiastically get super into whatever I was building. Even though he builds traditional american furniture from the 1700’s and 1800’s and I love a primitive/Japanese minimalism combo he was always more than willing to cross over to the minimalism side when I needed it and is probably the traditionalist with the best handle on Japanese joinery as a result :). We always marvel that two very, very different pieces of furniture can come out of the same set of tools!

    I’m in my early 30’s now and live an eight hour drive away. Twice a year I take some vacation time and we book long weekends together and build something. This means we get to spend a solid couple of days together, we get to chat about life in person, I get to learn from his experience, and my house is filled with pieces that have a certain warmth to them because of the memories of working with my dad.

  14. J.C. aka BLZeebub says:

    Reading this piece I am reminded of John Prine’s “Spanish Pipe Dream”…

    We blew up our TV, threw away our paper
    Went to the country, built us a home
    Had a lot of children, fed ’em on peaches
    They all found Jesus on their own

    Gotta have faith, brother. They will find their own way and they will remember the lessons we imparted even when we weren’t trying to.

  15. Ingus P says:

    My dad died when I was young. Their was no one to teach me. I had his tools and I played with them and abused them. That is how learned to do things. As a single dad, my children were taught life skills (cooking , how to manage money, etc.) None of them followed my footsteps. I give my grand children tools. Give a 8 year old child a small hammer and some 3d nails. And they will drive a nail in everything they see.

  16. pavlush says:

    Funny, I had a similar experience except on a smaller scale. My father (a carpenter and a WWII refugee from Europe) bought a 1/2 acre lot in the Pocono mountains outside of Philadelphia PA. It was formerly a farm field covered in 3ft -4ft high grass. I helped clear the land, picking up stones, and learned how to use a scythe. Despite the initial bout of blistered and bloody hands, I could eventually “mow” faster (with a sharp blade) than a machine could in that tall “prairie” grass. Just like my father spoke of how it was done in the “old country”. We then commenced to build a small 12′ x 12′ cabin (and plant a few apple and pear trees) which we used for weekend getaways and longer, despite having no running water. My sisters and I resisted as we got older but me less so than they. I went to college and have worked mostly in the cubicle jungles since. I still take care of that place 50 years later-my parents gone now. My father never overtly taught me while I helped but it planted a seed. I return to those lessons and experiences – each time staying longer and longer. I’ve seen that whole thing of children resisting only to return as adults time and time again. Thanks Chris for sharing. Have a wonderful holiday season to you and your family.

  17. Dan says:

    Kids are weird, life is weird, and you never know. My dad hated manual labor, hated home improvement, and (quite sensibly) thought that was fine because he’d found a way to make enough money that he could comfortably pay contractors/handymen/etc to do the bulk of the physical labor around the house. When I left home I could tell which side was the business end of a screwdriver, and that’s about it. I love my dad very much, and am so much like him in some ways that my wife finds it uncanny, but on the other hand a while ago I found myself in a position where I had to quickly learn to handle routine repairs and home maintenance entirely on my own, and realized that I loved it in a way I didn’t really love any other kind of labor. That led me to hand tool woodworking, a hobby that has literally everyone in my family scratching their head and mystified. And there’s not a single woodworking skill I’ve learned that has any bearing on anything I learned as a kid. On the other hand, the way I think about it, the way I approach it, and the way I develop habits about doing it all tie back directly, in my mind, to things I learned from my dad about how he sees the world and how he relates to the things he finds meaning in doing.

    You never know what’ll take and what won’t. You never know what they’ll rebel against. You never know which of the things they rebel against will annoy them forever and which they’ll turn around and fall in love with later. Everything I know about raising kids reminds me about the old joke about making God laugh by telling him your plans. Be decent, be kind, be supportive, try to maintain a sense of perspective, and they’ll probably turn out fine. But they might not. And some of the finest people I know were raised by people who were none of those things. Also some of the worst.

    Stanley Fish talks about “inspired ad-hoccery,” which he argues is the key to certain social and political structures. I’m not convinced anything works any other way.

  18. John says:

    My father took the same approach with me when I younger. Letting me learn and explore the shop at my own pace. About the time my father was diagnosed with cancer is when I dove head first into really wanting to learn. Now long after he has passed,and I have 5 children of my own. I am continuing that same approach, keeping the door open and always being there to coach when they want it.

  19. Tom says:

    Growing up, my folks loved taking on family projects. Fixing up a house, planting a garden, whatever. And, whatever it was, I simply had to be included, and that often meant a lot of work doing stuff I didn’t want to be doing because it was “good for me.”

    These days, I’m not overly fond of gardening, though I do like the food I can get out of it. I’m also not fond of DIY projects around the house.

    But despite that, something about those days bore into my hindbrain. I work a sedentary job, doing the vocation of my dreams, but I still feel pulled to do things with my hands. That’s part of what brought me to woodworking. I just had to do something, after all, and we need new furniture, so… 😉

  20. Joe says:

    Both my grandfather and father puttered in their shops doing woodworking. I wasn’t forced and hung out there on occasion. It was enough so that when I wanted to do it in earnest as an adult, it didn’t feel completely foreign though I really didn’t know much. I’m sure your kids learned s lot just by watching you.

    Maybe it’s woodworking or maybe it’s another hand craft they do later. You will have played a role in it.

  21. holtdoa says:

    That’s crazy. It’s like letting them decide on their own between String Theory and Loop Quantum Gravity. Goodness, Leonard …err…I mean Chris, they’re children!

  22. Tom says:

    I didn’t really have a choice as a kid, always had home improvement projects going on or shop stuff and had to hold the flashlight and hand him the tools. Working in a small shop, knowing where every tool and fastener was helped to get things done quickly. Now, I have way too many tools and more room and don’t get enough stuff done. My kids don’t spend too much time in the shop but I am not giving up. It is a challenge when you are competing against various technology. Ultimately, I am glad I was nudged into home improvement and repairs. Now, I can do plumbing, carpentry, masonry, electricity, roofing, car repairs, etc. and am not tied to contractors or repair shops. My parents recently moved to a senior facility and he is not doing much beyond hanging pictures in their apartment. I have the majority of his tools now, a little sad knowing that he was so tied to them and took 50 or 60 years to gather them. I already have multiples of tools for my kids and future grandchildren if I can coax them into them. I get a lot of eye rolling when I say “you are getting this eventually”. However, I think I started the hand wood working after watching Roy do his show in the 80’s. Such an entertaining show and I learned a lot from him. Now with Chris, Richard, Curtis, Roy, Paul, etc. on the internet, there is no excuse not to learn this stuff. Very grateful that this information is out there.

  23. Dr. James May says:

    Great story!!

  24. James W May DDS says:

    Beautiful Story! I think you absolutely did the best thing possible for your children

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