The Challenges and Blessings of Raising Seven Sons
As told by Bert and Margaret Dickman
I was born in 1927, in Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.A., and grew up in South Dakota. I can recall my boyhood during the hard years of the Great Depression (1929-42). Mother used to make what she called graveyard stew. She would put a bit of fat in the frying pan and add some water, and then we would dip our bread in it. Things were hard for many families at that time.
MY FAMILY members were not religious—they saw too much hypocrisy in the local Protestant religions. As for me, my thinking was shaped by two years in the army during World War II. That was when I developed a taste for drink and gambling.
On a furlough from the army, I went to a local dance and met Margaret Schlaht, a girl of German-Ukrainian descent. We fell in love, and after courting for three months, we married, in 1946. Within eight years we had seven sons, and we found out the hard way what it is like to be parents.
In 1951, I had a serious accident at the sawmill and almost severed my lower left arm. For two years I had to stay in the hospital for skin and bone grafts. In the meantime, Margaret held the fort with five boys. Thanks to friends and neighbors, she made it through that tough period. While in the hospital, I had plenty of time to think about the purpose of life. I tried to read the Bible but without much success in understanding it.
Shortly after I got out of the hospital, we moved to Opportunity, a town in Washington State, and I went into the building trade with my brother-in-law. Now I’ll let Margaret tell her side of the story.
My Hands Were Full!
I was brought up on a farm where we cultivated grain, raised a small dairy herd, and canned fruit and vegetables. I had a strong work ethic that trained me for the future challenges of life, which were going to be many. We survived the Depression better than most, since we at least always had food.
My parents had no time for religion, although I attended Sunday school occasionally. Then, Bert and I married at the age of 19. We did not go to a church—we just had a simple ceremony in the front room of my parents’ house, with a Congregational minister officiating. In the course of a few years, I gave birth to seven boys—Richard, Dan, Doug, Gary, Michael, Ken and, finally, Scott, in 1954. They were quite a handful!
After we moved to Opportunity, a lady called at the house to talk about the Bible. I asked her if she believed in hellfire, a doctrine that really scared me. To my relief, she explained that hellfire is not a Bible teaching and that even the teaching of the immortality of the soul is not in the Bible! I had lived in fear and dread of dying and could not reconcile hellfire with a God of love. I determined that I would never teach falsehoods like that to my children.
In 1955, I started to study the Bible with the help of the book “Let God Be True.”a Wouldn’t you know it, that is just when the Pentecostal preacher suddenly took an interest in me and wanted to save me from Jehovah’s Witnesses! He made a big mistake—he started to preach hellfire to me! He even sent three of his Pentecostal ladies around to try to dissuade me from studying with the Witnesses.
In the meantime, Bert listened in on my Bible study from the front room. Later, he started to read the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, and things began to make some sense to him. He was working a shift that ended at midnight. Of course, I was in bed when he got home. One night I sneaked downstairs and found him secretly reading my books! I tiptoed back to bed, feeling pleased that he was checking things for himself. Eventually, he too studied the Bible, and in 1956 we became baptized Witnesses.
Having had seven sons in eight years, I found that caring for all the daily chores of feeding and clothing them and trying to keep the house clean and tidy was a challenge. The boys learned to pull their weight in the home. I have often said that I did not have an automatic dishwasher—I had seven! Each took turns in this necessary routine. Of course, Bert was a great help. He maintained consistent discipline and house rules yet also kept the lines of communication open. The boys respected their dad but were not afraid of him. Bert never neglected his responsibility to teach our sons about what they fondly remember him referring to as “the birds and the bees.”
Richard, our eldest son, went to serve as a volunteer at the Watch Tower Society headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, in 1966. To see the first one leave the nest was quite a test for me. That empty seat at the table each day made my heart ache. But I was happy that he was gaining good experience and training.
I’ll let Bert continue the story.
Raising Our Boys by Bible Principles
Margaret and I were baptized at a convention in Spokane, Washington. Now we had the challenge of raising our boys according to Bible principles—what you might call the old-fashioned way. I would not tolerate any lies or any double standards, and the boys knew it. We taught them that Jehovah deserves the best.
However, they knew that they could confide in me because we had a close relationship and we did so many things together. As a family, we enjoyed going to the beach, having picnics in the mountains, and playing softball. We had animals and a garden, and the boys all pitched in with whatever had to be done. Thus they learned to work and to play. We tried to keep a balance in our activities.
A Theocratic Adventure
On the spiritual side, we all went to the Christian meetings at the Kingdom Hall together, and we had our regular family Bible study. In 1957 we attended a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Seattle, Washington. During the program a call was made for families to move to serve where there was a greater need for Witnesses to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom. Our family thought it was a good idea, and we started to plan our move. First we went to Missouri in 1958 and then to Mississippi in 1959.
In 1958 we had our first big theocratic adventure. I built a camping trailer, which we pulled with an old 1947 three-seater, six-cylinder DeSoto. That year all nine of us traveled to New York in that car to attend an international convention. We spent several weeks on the road, camping on our way from Spokane, on the West Coast, to New York—a distance of over 2,600 miles [4,200 km]! The boys fondly remember that journey as quality time and great fun.
Learning Discipline From a Cake
At that convention we got our copies of the book From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained.b That book along with the Bible became the basic text for our weekly family Bible study. All the boys learned to read at an early age. After school Marge would spend some time with the boys, listening to them read the Bible. We did not allow TV to take over their minds.
We had discipline and respect in the family. On one occasion Margaret had made a big cake—one of her specialties. The meal that day included carrots. We always encouraged the boys at least to taste their vegetables. Doug did not like carrots. He was told that unless he ate the carrots, he would not get any cake. He still refused to finish his meal. Margaret said, “If you don’t eat those carrots, the dog will get your cake.” I don’t think that Doug really believed her until he saw Blackie gulp down his delicious cake! He learned a lesson from that experience, and so did the rest of the boys. As parents, we meant what we said.
Life Was Fun
Margaret and I were guided by Jesus’ expression found at Matthew 6:33: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.” As a family, we tried to put Kingdom interests first. We all enjoyed going out preaching together, and the boys would take turns going from house to house with me. Each one had his own book bag, Bible, and Bible literature. We commended them for any progress they made. Margaret often gave them a big hug. Indeed, we regularly showed them affection. We always made time for the boys—life was fun!
As the boys grew up, they had such responsibilities as picking up people to take them to the meetings, opening up the Kingdom Hall, and helping with other duties. They learned to appreciate the Kingdom Hall as their place of worship and enjoyed maintaining it.
We encouraged them to express themselves at Christian meetings. They gave their short student talks in the Theocratic Ministry School, where they gradually learned to be speakers. Michael, our fifth son, always disliked public speaking and had a hard time on the platform. Partway through his talks, he would begin to shed tears of frustration, since he was unable to finish. In time, he got over that, and now, as a married man, he serves as a traveling overseer, visiting different congregations and giving talks several times a week. What a change!
How the Boys Viewed Discipline
Awake! contacted Michael to get his impressions of being raised the old-fashioned way. “We viewed Dad as a benevolent disciplinarian. I recall that as a teenager, I went to work for a radio station. I wanted a car so that I could also engage in the full-time pioneer ministry. The station manager offered me his two-door Ford Mustang convertible, a sporty car popular with young people. I had my heart set on it, even though I knew it was not a very practical car for taking people with me in the ministry. I went to Dad with a certain sense of trepidation. When I told him about the offer, he said, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ I knew what that meant! He reasoned with me and showed me the advantages of a more practical car. So I bought a four-door sedan, and after driving it over 100,000 miles [160,000 km] in my preaching assignment, I could only say, ‘Dad was right again.’
“The moving around when we were youngsters—from Washington to Missouri and then to Mississippi—was an exciting experience. We enjoyed it. Even with nine of us living for a year in an 8-foot by 37-foot [2.5-m by 11m] trailer, it was all great fun and taught us to be organized and get along with one another, even in cramped quarters. Of course, we tended to play outside a lot.
“Something else I remember and cherish was how Dad conducted the consideration of the daily text with us. In 1966 he attended a school for elders at Kingdom Farm, in South Lansing, New York, and he saw that the Bethel family did research in order to give comments on the text each day. He incorporated the same system into our family routine. Each of us seven boys was assigned a morning to comment on what we had researched. Though at times we grumbled, it taught us how to do research and express ourselves. Habits like that last a lifetime.
“I was impressed by the sacrifices that Mom and Dad made in our behalf. When my two older brothers Richard and Dan could have been earning money for the family, our parents encouraged them to go to Brooklyn, New York, to serve as volunteers at the world headquarters of the Watch Tower Society. Our parents also saved up money so that five of us could fly to New York to see the headquarters for ourselves. That greatly affected me. It increased our appreciation for Jehovah’s organization.
“Now let me turn the story back to Dad.”
We Had Our Setbacks
Like any other family, we have had our problems and setbacks. As the boys got to courting age, I had to counsel them about rushing into marriage with the first girl who caught their eye. We also made sure that they were suitably chaperoned. We wanted them to have some experience in life before choosing a lifelong mate. Sometimes there were tears and even temporarily broken hearts, but in the long run, they recognized the wisdom of Bible counsel—especially to marry “in the Lord.” We commended them for their wisdom.—1 Corinthians 7:39.
Scott, our seventh son, caused us to shed some tears. He succumbed to bad association at his workplace. Finally, he was disfellowshipped from the congregation. That was a hard blow for all of us, but we respected the elders’ judicial decision. Scott had to learn the hard way that serving Jehovah is the best way of life.
We never gave up on his coming back to the congregation. Happily, after five years he was reinstated in the congregation. Looking back, he says, “One thing that helped me while I was disfellowshipped was that although family association was very limited, I always knew that my family loved me.” Scott continued to progress and has served as an elder for the past eight years.
Sad to say, two of our grandchildren were disfellowshipped in recent years. But we have the comfort that discipline from Jehovah can result in positive changes.
A Big Change in Our Lives
Finally, by 1978, all the boys had left home. In the course of the years, I had gained experience in heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. In 1980, Margaret and I received an amazing invitation to serve at the Brooklyn headquarters of the Watch Tower Society for nine months. Eighteen years later, we are still here!
We have been abundantly blessed. It was not always easy to raise our sons the old-fashioned way, according to Bible principles, but it has paid off in our case. Our present family situation is that five of our boys serve as congregation elders, and one is a traveling overseer. We have 20 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren—and most are in the truth and faithful to God.
We have seen the truthfulness of the words of the psalmist: “Look! Sons are an inheritance from Jehovah; the fruitage of the belly is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are the sons of youth.”—Psalm 127:3, 4.
a Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., in 1946; now out of print.
b Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Pictures on page 20, 21]
With our sons and daughters-in-law (right) and grandchildren (far right) at our 50th anniversary, in 1996