In the mid-’60s, renowned political scientist Charles Lindblom aptly described the process of mutual adjustment that can occur in partisan politics when, often without daily directions from top leaders, decisions get made and policies get implemented. In other words, politicians spend a lot of time “muddling through.”
We hadn’t read Lindblom, but in our Berwyn bungalow on Clarence Avenue, in our tiny polity, we six Kordesh kids operated similarly. Generally without specific parental orders, we worked out on a day-to-day, or week-to-week, basis who might get what room to sleep in, who at any particular moment would access the one bathroom in the house, who chose what would be playing on TV, which of us siblings would walk the dog and when, and a myriad of other decisions.
Sure, Mom and Dad were attentive to us and generally in charge. We had to get their OKs to reallocate bedroom assignments, for example. To get through the day, we worked within their set of general rules, framed for us by our Deep State: the Roman Catholic Church. We muddled through, but within limits.
In our one-and-a-half story brick home, kids and parents would be constantly moving around and past one another, into and out of the “parlor,” the dining room, kitchen, the intersecting hallways, the back porch, as well through the three doors that led out to the neighborhood. Amazingly, we would never collide!
We had our methods of communicating with, and spying on, one another without getting in each other’s way. The kitchen was a major hub of activity. One sister would hide in my parents’ bedroom closet and listen through an air vent on the floor to what was being said at the table. A floor vent in the converted bedroom upstairs allowed a kid to lie prone and talk to whoever below might be using the sink, stove or refrigerator.
True, as the oldest kid and boy, followed by four sisters, I took for granted certain privileges. I always had my own bedroom, although to secure it I situated myself in spaces not exactly built for sleeping soundly, including the enclosed but not insulated back porch, and the unfinished basement.
Some of the perks I enjoyed still aggravate my sisters. They remind me even today about how I used to eat most of the broiled chicken wings that Mom would fix for dinner. They still can’t believe Mom let me get away with it!
It was not unusual in our neighborhood for the bungalows, built generally with the same floor plans, to house six or more people. The family next door to us had four kids. A house further down the block held five children (and the two parents). Twenty-four children lived on our side of the block.
Not only were the homes designed alike, the muddling through within them worked similarly, granting variations for parental style and temperament. Moms and dads set the general rules. Kids often worked out when they’d go out to play (if school wasn’t in session), which friends to have over, when to hold baseball or football games or jump rope in the alley.
Sometimes, the mutual adjustment got heated. Fights would erupt. There were a couple of bullies. When they saw bullying occur, dads or moms would step in. The fact that we all went to the same school and church — St. Mary of Celle — imposed a certain, quietly reverberating moral order whose origins we generally didn’t talk about much. But we knew there were limits. And we knew they would be enforced.
Flash forward to the early 2000s. Maureen and I are raising our four kids in a five-bedroom, three-story Victorian in Oak Park. Each of the three boys and the girl have their own rooms. There are three bathrooms. I work in my own office, as does Maureen in hers. There is still plenty of mutual adjustment, but more space and time for individual plans. The muddling through occurs in a different context than I had experienced in the 1960s.
A different moral order has emerged, attentive to racial, cultural and gender equality. Computers and cellphones connect kids and adults to the rest of the planet. They network with each other online. Technological savvy, contracts with responsible service providers, and good communication lines are needed by parents to keep up with what the young ones do.
Muddling through works for kids when their families and communities provide the moral frames within which to practice it. Surely, there are in Berwyn and Oak Park today more programmed activities for kids than there used to be. Family sizes are smaller. There are more and different sources of guidance available for each of the two communities’ youngsters than we had. But whether they grow up in bungalows or Victorians, kids need freedom, and they need limits and trust in their legitimacy.
is a former Berwyn and Oak Park resident who currently lives in Chicago.