I have something to confess, and I may as well get it off my chest.
I am a thief. A shameless one. Maybe because I’m a writer, and a bit of a perfectionist, but I like to steal from all the good people around me. I steal column topics and personal anecdotes, unique character names and even phrases I hear at the dinner table.
But I have especially sticky fingers when it comes to parenting tips.
I was fortunate to marry into a large family that excelled at being a large family. I learned quickly that large families usually have a unique set of systems in place that makes for a well-run home. They must do this out of necessity. After all, they’re raising a small army.
Of course not all large families are functional, but the ones that are can be worth emulating. Moreover, their unique systems can easily be applied to smaller families to make home life more sustainable. The side benefit? The kids turn out pretty swell.
Here are some of the secret successes of large families I’ve stolen over the years. Now, like any good thief, I’m sharing them with you.
1. Delegation: In a large family, Mom and Dad simply cannot do it all. Large families have a healthy delegation of responsibility. In the families that I know, each child is responsible for a large task: laundry, dishes, vacuuming, bathrooms, etc. Or they each have a specific, after-dinner duty. Some families assign each child a zone of the house, which they are responsible for keeping clean. Having a set system in place helps with delegation fatigue on the part of the parents.
2. Capability: This goes right along with delegation. My cousin-in-law, mother of seven (with No. 8 due next month), expects big things of her kids. She believes them to be capable, and they absolutely rise to the occasion. For instance, the 9-year-old does all the laundry. The 7-year-old unloads the dishwasher. Her kids are some of the happiest, most easy-going kids I know. Mom and Dad take the time to train each child in their task until they’re confident in doing it on their own.
Most kids are more capable than we think. With some patience and training, they can be taught basic household chores at a young age.
3. Independence: In large families — again, out of necessity — kids are forced to develop a certain degree of independence. Mom and Dad are often busy with younger, needier siblings. They don’t have time to tie every shoe, solve every argument and check every homework assignment.
Even in smaller families, parents can do more to teach kids independence. They can insist that kids do things on their own: wipe up their own spills, clean bedrooms, resolve an argument, find rides to church activities and take responsibility for school assignments.
We had neighbors in Minnesota with five children. The father counseled troubled teens. Because of his line of work, in which he saw so many overly dependent children, he had very specific methods for raising his kids. For instance, they all walked to school, more than a mile away, no matter the weather conditions. (And in Minnesota, there were some pretty fantastic weather conditions.) His kids also got jobs as soon as they turned 16. His strategy worked. His kids were some of the most articulate, polite, capable kids I’ve met.
4. Trust in the process: The large families I admire seem to have a healthy relationship with childhood. They don’t helicopter-parent, worrying about neurotoxins or BPA-free or flashcards or an overabundance of activities. They trust that if they create a safe, clean, nurturing environment, childhood will blossom of its own accord.
5. Organization and communication: The large families I know are well-organized. This might be the attribute I admire most, since I’m about as organized as a pile of shoelaces. Organized families keep large wall calendars with all upcoming events. There is a landing place for shoes, backpacks and lunchboxes. Kids seem to know their routine. For instance, I watched my sister-in-law’s kids this past week for a few days. I asked them what they wanted to eat for breakfast. “Friday is oatmeal day,” my nephew told me. I marveled. I had never thought of assigning oatmeal its very own day. Brilliant.
6. Everyone pitches in: In large families, no one gets a free ride. My husband said that when he was growing up, there was a list of chores every day after school. Saturday was work day, and it wasn’t of the “clean your room” variety. It involved hours upon hours of inside and outside chores. He remembers trying to hide. He remembers getting scolded for hiding. But one of the things I’ve always admired is how hard he can work. He and his siblings developed this incredible habit that continues today: whenever we’re together, they continually ask, “What can I do to help?” It’s trained into them.
7. Family culture: There’s a lot of pressure to have kids involved in multiple extracurricular activities. Three or four sports, art class, karate, gymnastics, piano, voice lessons, computer coding. When I read articles about overscheduled kids, I think we’re missing the crux of the problem. The kids are fine. It’s the parents, the veritable taxi service, who are overscheduled. To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, the parents feel thin, like butter scraped over too much bread.
Again, out of necessity, large families often cannot have their kids in 17 different places. They tend to pick one or two activities that become part of the family culture. Perhaps they all play violin. Or swim with the local club. My cousin-in-law’s family hired a coach to teach all their kids tennis. As the kids get older, they may naturally branch out into a unique set of activities, but for the sake of logistics, this works well when they’re young.5 comments on this story
Large families are not as commonplace as they were a few decades ago. I admire them a great deal. Once upon a time, I dreamed of having eight kids. In my mind’s eye, we would be something like the von Trapps, parading through the hillside in curtains and singing while I played the guitar.
In real life, I don’t have eight kids. I have four boys who won’t wear jeans, much less matching lederhosen, and they refuse to sing, even in the church choir — which I direct! However, even with my small brood, we’ve learned a great deal from the example of others.
We’ve still got a ways to go, but with Oatmeal Friday and a wee bit of organization, we might just get there.