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Making a House a Home

Bringing Up Children at Harvard

By Cheryl R. Devall

Generalizing about what it's like to be a child at Harvard is about as simple as writing a comprehensive profile of any Harvard class in 25 words or less. While many of the problems of growing up are universal, certain elements of Harvard life--housing, proximity to students, parents' occupations, and the number of other children nearby--make the lives of the roughly 35 children of masters and resident tutors living in Harvard Houses very different from the standard childhood experience. Very young children who have seen little outside Harvard are strongly molded by their surroundings, and their parents must make special efforts to provide as "normal" an environment as possible for them. Because each family experience is unique, the four families described below represent only a sampling of lifestyles, rather than an attempt to draw conclusions.

Maintaining an orderly home life in a Harvard House is a challenge, says Linda Orf, wife of Mather House senior tutor Harry Orf. "Trying to keep a routine is something you have to work for. You're more open to disruptions," she says. But in spite of frequent visits by students and faculty and the academic and social demands of House life, the Orfs usually find time to be alone with their 11-month-old son Darren. Like other parents, they reserve certain hours each day--usually early mornings and evenings before their children's bedtime--during which they give full attention to the children.

Parents find it easiest to reserve time for studying and other duties when their children attend school or daycare centers. For Graeme Fincke, pre-medical adviser at North House, and Heidi Urich, a first-year Harvard Law student, day care and the peculiar conveniences of House life make it possible for each parent to maintain a busy schedule while keeping up with their children, Josh, aged three, and Anna, aged two. Since the family usually eats together in the House dining hall, the parents are spared the work of cooking meals and cleaning up, and can spend extra time with their children at the end of the day.

Parents make special accomodations for children too young to go to school. For Elaine Dunn, associate master of Quincy House, who worked as director of child development at Simmons College before the birth of her son Alexander, staying at home was a matter of choice. "I thought I'd keep working, and even applied for daycare. But as soon as he was born I decided to stay with him," she says. Although she may enroll him in a nursery school after his second birthday, Dunn has mixed feelings about doing so. "I'm fascinated by his growth. I want to be with him," she says.

Linda Orf has fulfilled her desire to work while managing to care for Darren. After lunch on weekdays the two of them go to the Mather House office where she works as an administrative assistant while he plays nearby until his afternoon nap. The arrangement works because, she says, "Darren is as comfortable alone as he is with other people," and since he is not yet walking, he cannot move out of her sight. Darren meets many students during his hours in the office, and he is beginning to recognize and "talk" to some of them. "Maybe that's why he's so happy," his mother suggests.

Getting to know students is part of the life of every Harvard child. Josh and Anna, who live on a North House hallway and eat in the dining hall, know many students by name and play with them often. Their parents do not mind these friendships, although Graeme Fincke, their father, says, "Unless a student shows a particular affection for the kids, we try to keep them from raising hell."

"We don't want to be pushing the kids on students who don't want to deal with young kids when they're in college," he adds. "We try to restrain their activities so they don't run all over or block the main halls."

Both parents acknowledged the possibility that there may be students who, as Urich puts it, "don't feel so warmly toward children."

Students in other Houses also take an interest in the resident children and many children are accustomed to seeing students on a regular basis. Sixteen-month-old Alexander Dunn looks forward to greeting visitors to the Master's sherry hours; although he cannot yet remember or pronounce many names, the child recognizes faces and greets everyone with "Hi, boys! Hi, girls!" He refers to sherry hours as "potato chip time," because students like to feed him munchies on request.

Sarah, aged four, and Nathaniel, aged six, children of Quincy House senior tutor Marshall Pihl and Natalie Pihl, enjoy the beer parties at their apartment for the same reason. Because the senior tutor's residence is not "on the beaten path," students do not drop by as casually as they might in other Houses, Natalie Pihl says.

The Pihl children, therefore, live separately from the students in the House. "They're in another orbit," says Marshall Pihl, adding that Nathaniel and Sarah know some students, especially their regular babysitters, but generally keep to themselves. "They have a strong feeling that this is their house," says their mother.

Students usually respect the children's privacy. "Some people say how nice it is" to have them in the House, Natalie Pihl says. "No one's ever told me how nice it isn't." Usually the Pihls have meals in their apartment, but when they go to the dining hall "people don't bother us," Marshall Pihl said. "I think it's the presence of the kids, ironically, that makes them shy away, because they respect the family circle."

All the parents expressed some fear that excessive contact with students might lead to abnormal behavior in the children. "When I moved in three years ago, I was afraid they'd become instantly precocious, but it hasn't happened," Natalie Pihl says. "We're concerned because the kids get a lot of attention from so many people, and we're afraid they might become--spoiled," Graeme Fincke says. He and his wife are "keeping an eye on the children" to prevent that from happening.

"Being with adults can set up a false environment in which everyone gives in to them," Elaine Dunn says. "It's very hard on a child. Some of the adults may be hard on him, expecting things that the child may not be up to," she says, adding that so far none of this pressure has affected her son Alexander.

Most parents say the benefits of raising a family at Harvard outweigh the difficulties. "I would hope that the students feel they would profit from seeing a family around," Fincke says. "Not that I would expect us to be the ideal family--maybe the opposite--but I like to give people another image of a family than that of their own parents. I wish I'd had more contact with married people when I was an undergraduate."

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