"Family first" is the unofficial motto of The Boxcar Children—or, make that "most family first" since the Alden siblings are on the run from their evil grandfather. As the kids make their home in the boxcar, the siblings' love for one another is plain to see. They always work well as a team, supporting one another in everything they do. The older kids, Henry and Jessie, even act as parents to their little brother and sister by earning money, cooking, and caring for them. By the end of the book, the little family expands to include two more members: the children's grandfather (who isn't evil after all—yay) and Watch the dog.
In The Boxcar Children, family is a source of constant comfort to the Alden siblings. They're always there for each other no matter what.
In The Boxcar Children, family is a source of serious distress to the Alden siblings. Their parents are dead, and their fear of living with their grandfather forces them to flee civilization and make a home in the woods.
When the Boxcar Children settle into their makeshift home in the woods, Henry becomes a father figure to his family. The children seem to look to him as their leader. He is the one who works and provides for the family, plus he's strong, fast, and knows how to build things. He pays for the food and brings it home (but never cooks it), and when he thinks his family is in danger, he tries to protect them.
As Henry models these traditionally masculine qualities in The Boxcar Children, we see Benny begin to emulate them. He's just 5 years old, though, so he hasn't quite gotten the hang of this whole "being a man" thing yet.
The Boxcar Children emphasizes Henry's physicality—that is, the things he does with his body.
In The Boxcar Children, Benny demonstrates both masculine and feminine qualities.
In the world of The Boxcar Children, there's a clear line drawn between the types of work that women and men do. When the Alden children make an abandoned boxcar their home, Jessie settles into her role as housekeeper and mother figure. Though Henry often looks to her for advice, she plays a secondary role in decision-making—her main job is taking care of the family, which includes domestic duties like cooking and cleaning. She's also the family nurturer, looking after the younger children while Henry works during the day.
The Boxcar Children emphasizes Jessie's role as a nurturer over her other characteristics and skills.
Jessie's role as housekeeper is reflective of society's values when the book was written in 1924.
In The Boxcar Children, what makes a house a home isn't material things—it's the people who live there. Whether they're squatting in a metal box in the woods or living large in their grandfather's mansion, the Alden children are almost aggressively cheerful because they have each other.
It's a lovely sentiment, but their boxcar-living situation is definitely idealized. For one thing, all of the "comforts" of their boxcar have been made out of actual garbage from the actual dump—presumably, the boxcar's charms would wear off if the kids remained homeless for years. Fortunately for everyone, Mr. Alden takes his grandchildren under his wing and gives them a real house, with modern conveniences like doors and furniture.
In The Boxcar Children, home is wherever your family is.
The Boxcar Children idealizes what it's like to run away from home.
In The Boxcar Children, the, er, Boxcar Children have a lot of admirable qualities. This isn't an accident, either—the author wanted them to be good role models for young people. One of the kids' foremost traits is their industriousness, or commitment to hard work. Whether they're scavenging for household supplies, building a swimming pool, or cooking dinner, all four Aldens are busy little bees. Seriously, they love chores so much they might as well marry them.
One thing to watch for is the different kinds of work that boys and girls tend to do. (See our thoughts on "Men and Masculinity" and "Women and Femininity" elsewhere in this section.) Still, hard work is an important value in the novel.
In the world of The Boxcar Children, hard work is valued above all else.
In the world of The Boxcar Children, working isn't considered a difficulty or a hardship. It's just a normal way of life.
Speaking of values, a big one in The Boxcar Children is resourcefulness. The Alden children go to live in the woods with the most meager supplies in the history of camping, but somehow, they manage to outfit an entire household with "treasures" from the dump, build a fireplace, and engineer a dam so they can have their own swimming pool. Over and over again, The Boxcar Children demonstrates that necessity is the mother of invention. These kids are the picture of self-reliance.
While being resourceful is an important value in The Boxcar Children, the book's message is that children can't be 100 percent independent.
For the Alden children, living in the boxcar is just a sophisticated version of playing house—so imagination is the key to their success.
Though nearly everyone in The Boxcar Children comes across as super wholesome, the characters have more secrets than a telenovela. The Alden children basically put themselves in the witness-protection program to avoid detection by their grandfather (and never tell anyone how their parents died or where they lived before they went on the run). Plus, Dr. Moore is engaged in a spy-level surveillance program of their home in the woods, and Mr. Alden totally lies about his identity to earn the kids' trust. By the end of the book, pretty much everyone is implicated as a lying liar, but hey—it all works out fine.
The Boxcar Children promotes many values, but honesty isn't one of them.
The Boxcar Children demonstrates that honesty is the best policy by suggesting that there was never any real need for the Alden children to go into hiding.
Often (but not always) in literature, a novel will reflect the morals of its time. That's definitely the case in The Boxcar Children, which draws the line between right and wrong in the same way many Americans would have in the 1920s. On the "good" list: going to bed on time, not being competitive, and helping others. On the "bad" list: greediness, working on Sundays, and lying. We see the good behaviors modeled by most of the characters in the story. All of the Alden children and their friends are selfless, putting the welfare and happiness of others before their own personal gain.
Jessie is the moral center of the Alden family. She's always sure of what to do.
Henry sometimes struggles with the difference between right and wrong.