I’m in early morning boot camp class when the instructor, Karen, finds out that Chrissy, one of the women in the class, has seven kids. Karen’s obvious shock and massive self-editing effort were fun to witness.
Karen wanted to say: “Are you kidding me? Did you have seven kids on purpose? Do you know about birth control? Are you part of a fundamentalist church? What is your husband like? Are you OK? Do you need help? Do you have your own reality TV show? Are you kidding me?”
Karen’s editing was only partially successful, leading to several mildly inappropriate questions. Chrissy was gracious. She was used to this response.
Then another woman in the class said she saw Chrissy with all of her seven kids at the grocery store recently. She said Chrissy’s kids were not complaining, hitting each other, asking to buy something, demanding attention or getting lost. Chrissy said, “Well, they can’t.”
She physically can’t answer them all, referee them all or chase them all around the store and they know that, so they don’t do it.
This was a contrast to my recent grocery shopping experience with my two girls, three and five years old. Their constant “I want this!”, “I’m bored!” and “She hit me!” had me on edge. When they both started to stand up in the cart at the same time, my demon voice bellowed, “SSSIIIIITTTTTTT DDDDOOOOWWWWNNNNNN!” with such fierceness that a woman from the next aisle over came up to me and offered to pray for all of us and I gratefully accepted.
For a moment, I was jealous of Chrissy and her seven kids. Her large family has built-in limitations that give kids extensive, real-world experience with important skills and values. Such as:
1. Be Helpful
In a large family, each kid has to be helpful for the family to function. The older ones have to help the younger ones get dressed and get out the door in the morning. Everyone has to pitch in to get a large dinner to the table and cleaned up. Small acts of being helped and giving help happen during each day, so it becomes a natural habit.
2. Be Patient
In a large family, lessons on being patient abound. Each kid can’t have a parent’s attention all the time, they can’t get what they want right away and if they are bored, they have to handle it on their own. It’s realistic and good practice for when the kid gets to school and work later in life.
3. Be Generous
Sure, ever family has to share, but in a large family the sharing gets serious. Kids have to share rooms, bathrooms, back-to-school clothes and college savings accounts. Some kids will need more than others at different times and it won’t always be divided equally. That helps set realistic expectations of the adult world.
It’s not that smaller families don’t also have some of this. But, with modern conveniences, two-income families, bigger houses and more help, a lot of it can be avoided. And what if constraints aren’t real? What if a family has just one kid and the kid’s needs can be addressed right away? What if the maid does a great job, so help isn’t needed around the house?
But surely I’m kidding about actually having seven kids, right?
I agree that actually having the seven kids might not be right for every family. I personally hope that there is another way, since I only have three kids and I’m forty-seven-years old. Is there a way to simulate seven kids and the limitations that help kids learn to be patient, helpful and generous?
Maybe I should create an obstacle coarse of sorts. Maybe make the kids walk the long way to school? Maybe have them wait one minute before I respond to their request? Maybe make them share their toys with me?
No, that doesn’t seem like the answer.
Here are a few ideas I have tried:
1. Everyone Helps With Dinner
We have a family rule: that if you are going to eat it, you help make it. Our younger kids set and clear the table and our teenager helps make the dinner. It takes longer this way. My teenager takes naps after school and waking her up isn’t a pleasant experience for either one of us. My five-year-old needs help getting the dishes down and my seven-year-old still can’t remember where we keep the napkins. But we do it every time, even when it’s an easy dinner. The work can be boring and repetitive, a real chore, but so can life. I want to give my kids practice with boring and repetitive chores, so they know they can do it when they need to and they learn how to sing or share stories to make it more fun.
2. Camping Slows Us Down
My husband is the one who likes camping, not me. I don’t understand why someone would make everything more difficult on purpose. It takes me 30-minutes to make a pot of coffee when we are camping. It’s the same for the kids, getting dressed takes longer, brushing your teeth requires a hike and there’s no TV for when you feel like doing nothing. But each time we go, after a few hours, I feel us slow down. I feel the constant planning and doing and checking fade away. We are less immediately entertained and more patient. We spend time getting the fire started and we spend more time listening to each other’s stories.
3. Volunteer as a Family
Our first family volunteering attempt didn’t go well. We helped a program pick up litter, but we were assigned a very clean neighborhood and our gloves and trash bags outweighed the trash we found. We kept trying, though, and found a program at our church where we make bag lunches for the working poor. I’m hopeful that my young girls’ limited skills at least match the extra time the lead volunteer spends with them. The experience brings up questions about people in need and being grateful for what you have. My girls are the ones that make sure we have water bottles and snacks for people who ask for money at the street corners now.
We don’t all need to have seven kids. But I will learn from how large families work and how jobs and communities work, and be sure my kids are learning what they will need when they grow up. And when I see Chrissy in the mornings at exercise class, I will ask her a question now and then about her family. Not to find the reason why she had so many kids, but to hear her wisdom, because I still have a lot to learn.
Carol Ramsey is a writer and storyteller who lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and three girls. She has performed at Testify, The Story Department and Listen to Your Mother. Find out more at CarolMRamsey and Austin Storytelling.
Photo: Bernd Zimmermann