By Alex Tresniowski Jeff Truesdell
December 07, 2009 12:00 PM

A sound like thunder rumbles through the house: It’s drum practice time at the McCaugheys’. “I’m better,” says Brandon, the one who’s into tanks and armor. “No, you’re not,” says Kenny Jr., the adventurous one. They decide to settle it as any boys would. Says Brandon: “Let’s have a contest!”

Things get noisy now and then, but life in the McCaughey household is surprisingly calm and orderly. The world’s first surviving set of septuplets—born after their mother took a fertility drug, and given virtually no chance to make it as a group—are a happy, grounded bunch of kids who celebrated their 12th birthdays on Nov. 19. “We wanted them to be just like any other kids, except they happened to be born on the same day,” says mom Bobbi, 41, a full-time kindergarten assistant. Though they’ve had their share of media attention, her children, she says, “were never in a constant fishbowl”—unlike, say, the Gosselins. “As we’ve all watched the downward spirals in those families, I’m glad we were protected from that.”

The McCaughey septuplets—Brandon, Kenny Jr., Alexis, Natalie, Kelsey, Nathan and Joel, 12—go to the same school but take separate classes. At home in Carlisle, Iowa, they do chores, put on talent shows and generally get along, though “there’s competition for attention,” says dad Kenny, 39, a kitchen-countertop manufacturer. Mostly they are protective of each other—and particularly of Alexis and Nathan, who have cerebral palsy but are doing well after surgeries. They are also growing apart as they grow older, but they’re still pretty tight. Thanks to basement renovations, each septuplet finally has his or her own room. Yet “almost every night someone will ask to sleep in someone else’s room,” says Bobbi. “They like the alone time, they just don’t want to be alone all the time.”