Feb 23, 2014

Big Families: Teaching Teamwork But Keeping Things Fair

This is a big one.

I have thought a lot about this, in fact. I have wanted to have a very large family from the time I was very small. When I was about two or three, my mother caught me trying to nurse my baby dolls. As late as eighth grade, when they handed out "flour babies" as a school project, I was thrilled for the opportunity to pretend I had a newborn to carry around and nurture. I have wanted to be a mother for my entire life.

WHen my friends asked me when I was in high school, I used to say I wanted twelve children--enough to have two basketball teams or baseball teams that could play each other. I was not really joking. I have loved the idea of a large family. I loved visiting houses where large families lived. I wanted to have lots and lots of kids. I looked forward to developing traditions and a family culture and friendships and a support group that would just be tight and close and friends. I envied my friends who came from larger families than mine (and, OK. I came from a family of six. That's still pretty big.)

I wasn't aware, when I was young (or when I started having my family) that being in a large family might have its downsides. I was amazed to realize that some people who came from large families didn't like it--they felt exploited, or shortchanged, or something. And they then made the decision to have only a few or one or no children.

It has made me ponder a little bit. Is it exploitation, to have a family so large that you cannot get by without the kids pitching in? Older kids helping younger kids out, all kids over a certain age doing a share of the housework? And my poor oldest kids. They won't know the benefit of lots of different lessons because I can't afford them yet, with so many kids down the pipeline absorbing expenses. They spend some time babysitting instead of going on playdates with neighbors several times a week. I may only have a small amount of one-on-one time for each kid on busy days. I may have no time at all for some, if some are having meltdowns/have to go to the dr/need lots of help with a school project on a certain day.

I was feeling all guilty and worried until I had an opportunity to be around someone (an adult) who surprised me with their lack of willingness. I'm not sure of any other way to put it than that: lack-of-willingness. A lack of willingness to be inconvenienced, to do a job that is mundane or grinding, to pay attention to kids when they would rather be doing something else. This person was sort of a part of our family for a while and it surprised me to see up close what they struggled with; not just helping others, but being able to help themselves. I realized that this is not a trait to be desired at all. If you aren't used to being inconvenienced, to doing things you'd rather not be doing when there are more fun things to do, If you aren't used to stretching yourself to do a task you are not used to, you can end up in a world of hurt as an adult.

And that's when my thoughts about this whole big-family thing turned around. If you grow up without having to do things to create the comfort you're a part of, you just expect it to happen to you. Case in point: a boy whose mother does all their dishes, laundry, and cleans their room for them. They go off to college without knowing how to go about these things, and also unused to the tasks. They're going to be pretty messy roommates for a while, and it will be a real burden for them to suddenly assume it all at once, instead of learning, year by year, how to do it for themselves.

So a big family, done right, can teach some really great and important life skills. It can teach hard work. It can teach teamwork, because there's a very real need for it--my house would never, ever be acceptably clean if my kids did not help out. One person cannot keep up with nine peoples' messes. It can also teach compassion and nurturing. I cannot be holding the crying four year old WHILE I am nursing the needy newborn AND bouncing the irritable toddler on my knee--an older kid gets that opportunity, to help her sister feel better. To put herself in someone else's shoes. To get used to being needed, and be OK with being needed.

I think that's a problem in today's society. I think a lot of people shy away from obligations. They don't want to feel obligated or needed. I'm not saying this is the case with all people who come from smaller families--that's not it at all. And I'm not saying it's the case with all people who don't want kids, either; I have childless friends who, for instance, adopt needy rescue animals. That's not what I'm talking about here. You'll know what I'm talking about when you see it: people who are used to playing all the time, not working. People who are used to getting what they want, not waiting. People who get bored really, really fast because they are used to spending much of their time being entertained.

That may sound harsh. And I know a few people's feathers will be ruffled, reading this. Sorry about that.

I want my kids to learn something different. And my hope is that having a large family, if you do it right, can teach these skills without overwhelming the kids so much that they look back on their experience with pain and frustration. I've been thinking about ways to do this--strategies for balance. Here's what I have come up with so far.


1) Make sure you praise them and say thank you. Even if it is something they know they have to do, people like to be thanked and appreciated for their hard work. Kids are people.

2) Rewards. As an example, Jeff and I go out on a date each week. If my kids complain I don't say "tough, it's part of being part of this family": instead, I remind them that mom and dad go on dates to keep this family healthy; that maintaining our relationship is something that benefits them as well. And I give treats: incentives for older kids to do a good job and for younger kids to be easy to babysit. I was the oldest in my family, usually the babysitter, and struggled with my siblings. They were not very motivated to be good and easy kids to babysit, and a lot of the fallback ended up on me. I really couldn't win. I had to stay home and watch the kids and I got chewed out and lectured afterward because the experience was always contentious and destructive. Kids went crazy and disobeyed rules (it seemed sometimes, on purpose to get me in trouble.) Ugh. Bad memories. I want babysitting in my home to be a time for the kids to bond and have fun away from parents... and to test the waters a bit. Be given a chance to obey rules on their own. The reward seems to help with this.

3) Related to the above: power struggles. I try hard to stay out of them. Not just between myself and my children, but between the kids, too. I do that by not allowing kids to "tell" on each other unless a) someone is being hurt or b) something is being destroyed. And I will only step in if it sounds like some real contention is stirring up. I think it's healthy for kids to learn conflict resolution. I think it's unhealthy, most of the time, for a parent to step in and start handing out punishments unless a rule is being broken (eg hurting or destroying). I will, however, process conflicts with my kids after they've been resolved, and try to help them figure out better ways to deal with conflict.

4) Burdens. I try very hard to be aware of the burdens each of my kids have. For instance, my sixth grader is currently managing the workload of 6 different teachers, she has play practice for a couple hours after school, and she has mutual activities to attend (which I want her to attend.) She often stays up until 10:30 at night doing homework. On occasion,I decide that she doesn't need to do the dishes, even when it's her night. Sometimes I need to do them for her, and that's OK if she understands I'm doing it *for* her, because I want to make sure she's healthy and able to balance her load of responsibilities.

5) Fairness. I know that's a word a lot of people put down nowadays, but I think it is very important to *try* to be fair. It won't always be fair, and kids need to know that. One child's needs sometimes outweighs another's, and sometimes one kid needs a different approach than another. Sometimes one kid gets a special treat because they had to have their tooth pulled even if, yes, it was their fault for not brushing their teeth. Sometimes the overburdened adolescent needs some time to herself with mom and no other kids just to talk. And of course, it's absolutely unfair that the tiny baby gets every waking minute of mom's undivided attention for months after he is born. That's life. But... a parent should try very hard to be as fair as he or she can be. We adults still like to be treated fairly. Give kids equal opportunities to be good and earn rewards. Don't blame one kid for things more than another. Some kids do test the waters and push boundaries more than others, but watch that. Make sure you don't scapegoat. And Don't favor one kid's brand of brilliance over another's. Loli is a briliant writer and singer, and my natural feeling is to be amazed and grateful for that. But MayMay is brilliant with people, and engaging, and a ray of sunshine and she is always thinking of others. That deserves just as much time and attention and recognition. Try to do things that will help your kids to not compare themselves to each other and compete for your affection.

6) Be always available. It's important. If you have eight kids you have approximately no free time. If stuff takes you away from them, it better be important stuff. (Stuff like a cultivated hobby or talent is important stuff--we need those sorts of things. Yes, I am talking about writing. But you maybe only have time for one. I cannot do writing AND sewing AND be a gourmet cook AND become a super couponer.) Stuff that takes you away needs to be important and there can't be that much of it; you have to choose between better and best. Because they all need some time with you. My mother had a saying: if your house is clean, that's nice. But as a mom, your most important job is to be a lap. If the dishes are dirty in the sink and the room is strewn with objects and the counters are sticky and the laundry in a giant messy pile all over your living room floor, your most important job is *still* to be a lap. And a good friend of mine added to this: as they get older, it changes from lap to ear. The most important job you have with older kids, is to be an ear. That means you need to be there and available to listen when they want to talk.

7) Don't exploit them. There is a point, I think, where help and family teamwork can become exploitation, and I think that line is crossed when parents forget to think of their children as humans with needs equal to theirs. For instance, don't make your older kids babysit everyday. Or every other day. Your kids want you around, and your teenage girls are not ready to take on the burden of full-time or even part-time parenthood. Be respectful of their wants, too, as they age. When they get old enough to start to go out and play with mixed groups or go on dates, plan a weekend *with* them. Don't just say "Bye, too bad, Friday night's ours." Maybe you can switch up date night so they can go out and have fun when fun stuff is going on. And don't make them watch kids when church or major school activities are going on, or burden their hours so much that they can't participate in something that will give them enrichment, such as music or sports.

So important.

I think that's all I have for now. If you guys have stuff to add, I'd love your advice. My brood of eight will thank you, too.

1 comment:

Deb Samaniego said...

Love this. You have a way with words. Oh, wait, you're a writer. :) my boys need to read this. They could use a few more siblings