What was Calvin Coolidge like as a dad? For one thing, as running for office and holding office were his (only) hobbies, he was often absent, particularly in his Boston years, when he commuted home to Northampton on weekends. When he did spend time with his boys, he was apt to imbue them with the spirit of thrift and discipline. Thus, when walking past the Northampton bank where John and Calvin Jr. had their savings accounts, he would remind them, “Boys, listen here a minute and maybe you can hear your money working for you.”
There is little question that Coolidge was of the stern-yet-kind father variety portrayed in period movies. Raised on 19th-century notions of child rearing, he expected prompt obedience from his boys, resorting to the occasional cuff to the ears when they were misbehaving, but largely ruling by direction and precept rather than force. Placing great value on education, he closely scrutinized their reports and made tart observations when they were doing less well than they could have.
But his strictness was generally tempered with humor. An anecdote related in Ishbell Ross’ biography of Grace Coolidge relates one incident where Calvin Jr. was on the receiving end of his father’s impish humor:
The Coolidges sometimes went to Rahar’s Inn in Northampton for Sunday supper, where Calvin had taken his meals for seven years before his marriage. The boys considered this a treat. They had the run of the place and here young Calvin had his first encounter with a finger bowl. A thin slice of lemon floated on the water. He looked up at his father and inquired about its purpose.
“To drink,” said his father solemnly. Calvin picked it up and drank, until his mother explained the true function of the bowl.
Another episode related by Grace Coolidge concerned a lesson in thrift. The family had spent a night with Mr. and Mrs. Stearns at their Swampscott residence. There, Mr. Coolidge overheard Mr. Stearns asking young Calvin about a gift of five dollars, which he had sent him as a birthday gift and which the boy had neglected to acknowledge.
“All the way to Poland Springs the following day, his father questioned Calvin about what he had done with the money. After we arrived and had been shown to our romms young Calvin was seated at a desk, given a pencil and paper, and bidden to write down all the things he could remember for which he had spent his five dollars. At dinner time he had not made much headway.
The following day was an uncomfortably hot Sunday. We attended service in the chapel. The visiting minister had a long sermon. There was no air stirring. I do not believe that many who were in the congregation followed the discourse closely. After we had left the church and were walking back to the hotel, my husband turned to me and asked, “Mammy, what was the sermon about?” “Mercy,” I said, “don’t ask me!” Turning to the boys, he asked, “John, what was the sermon about?” “I don’t know,” was the answer. Then it was Calvin’s turn. The question was repeated. The boy squirmed uncomfortably and said he didn’t remember. “Yes, you do, too,” his father told him and kept at it until, with a resigned shrug, his son murmured, “Aw, spending money!”