4 Systems That Bring Life To Large Families
It’s a common question when you have a lot of children, “How do you do it?” I think what people are asking is, “How in the world do you manage all the ‘stuff’ of parenting ten kids?!” The emails, the texts, sports schedules, laundry, cooking, and–oh yeah, by the way–tending to their hearts. I never know how to answer. I can sound spiritual and say, “Oh, it’s the Lord.” or sometimes I just say, “I don’t keep up. Can’t you see?” Other times, I rave about our Care Community of volunteers who provide help almost every day. All of these answers are true, but I tend to leave out one big, boring response—systems. Tight systems bring order to most of the mess.
Before I was a mom, I really had no idea you needed a PhD in organization. I thought everyone was organized. My mom had drawer inserts to fit the exact shape of our scissors, Scotch tape, stapler, and more. My bed was neatly made, our rooms were straight, towels were always folded. I grew up one of three girls… very unlike my seven boys and three girls. Somewhere in my early twenties, I realized not everyone had a “gift drawer” or bought and wrapped Christmas presents in September. If you will, call it ”over the top,” but my mom really didn’t seem extreme; it was simply her way of life. My takeaway was that order was good. I tasted the benefits of how often her plate was clear enough to sit with me–spending time playing games with me. Order brought peace, and most of all, order created space to thrive.
Admittedly, there’s a dark side when one can become enslaved to order; it can own you. When overnight, God grew our family from five to ten children, I found myself craving nothing more than order. For a season, I put way too much attention on the systems I could control, possibly to avoid the deeper heart issues that were out of my control. However, a few systems emerged to serve as a trellis for my family’s day-to-day routine–the structural framework for freedom and a path to enjoy each other. The fruit of a few family systems was peace and the ability to stop what I was doing when someone needed me emotionally.
Here are four key systems that have made life work for our family of twelve:
Everyone has their own basket. We don’t mix baskets. Each child has two assigned days per week to do their laundry. They bring it to the laundry room before school and put it in the washer, and I run it through. That night, they are to hang everything on hangars–except for pajamas, exercise shorts, socks, and underwear. These go into the four drawers they are each assigned. We keep our younger kids’ clothes in baskets in our laundry room so we don’t have to constantly fold and put away. With very few chests of drawers, we have more space in bedrooms. Hanging clothes cuts down on wrinkles and also prevents the all-too-easy “stuffing” technique which leaves kids believing they have no clothes and asking for more. Our kids each own about two weeks’ worth of outfits. With access to excellent consignment stores and hand-me-downs, clothes aren’t that expensive. This leaves room for spending on shoes, now those are EXPENSIVE!
When people ask, “How do you cook for twelve?” I so want to brag and say I do, but I simply respond, “I don’t!” I have a Care Community of twelve families, where each family has signed up to bring us one meal per month. Their commitment is twelve meals a year. I have received three meals a week for TWO years!!!
What’s hard for people to comprehend is how long it has taken to teach our children to brush their teeth, bathe, bring homework home, learn to read, add, subtract, multiply, and divide. My Care Community truly frees my time to do what only I can do as “The Mom.” These volunteers’ gift to me is time to cram in five to ten years of lost time. Children from trauma are not ready to jump in and learn how to be a contributor to the household in the first few years. It is a process.
But the trick that truly makes it work? I do not even plan those three-times-a-week meals. A great friend, who is our Team Leader, organizes our Care Community, sends the emails with the requests, and generous friends and neighbors sign up. I could never manage all of this kindness and generosity myself. It requires a system.
How do you expect children to write in an agenda, bring home a book, or much less do their homework? Some children will just do it. For others, it is an all-out battle. We have to break the process down into small increments. Each task is tied to a small consequence or reward to help them remember. We have rewarded our “new” children far more than we are accustomed to, but realize they simply haven’t had the years of training it takes to develop internal motivation. We’ve trusted, and are still trusting, that our external motivators will eventually turn into internal motivation.
With small children, candy and prizes work wonders! Of course, one normally wouldn’t do this with middle schoolers, but when they’ve missed some developmental stages, it makes complete sense. We also give more consequences than we are comfortable with. For example, for each item missing in an agenda, it’s thirty minutes of serving us in whatever way we need on a Saturday. For a "0" representing a missed or incomplete assignment, it’s a loss of electronic time for the weekend. And, if they receive an "F"–no phone. Period.
There are a million and one ways to teach habits, but the most elusive thing to help a child develop is motivation. We have found that taking the time to “inspect what we expect” is key so we check for follow-through once expectations have been made clear. Letting a child see the relationship of cause and effect in all of the tiny decisions they make regarding schoolwork has really moved them to a place of more independence and a sense of greater capability.
I remember when my eldest turned three. I was dying to create a chore chart, hand over some of my load, and make that little cutie responsible. Let’s face it though, until kids are about eight, there just aren’t a ton of chores helpful to a mom that toddlers can do. It is in these early years that moms develop an intense amount of patience watching their young ones, who are so eager to help, pretty much undo all that we try to accomplish. Now that I have so many “of age” helpers, I am loving it! It has taken a lot of time to implement, train, and discipline, but the investment has paid off.
We used to rotate jobs monthly, attempting to teach each child each skill. We now go with the approach of tasking each child in their area of strength; it’s taken tons of stress off the parents. As in a corporation or committee, we assign them where they can show off! Now jobs are switched only a couple of times during the year. For example, two of mine who are great with our four-year-olds now “get to” dress them for bed and brush their teeth. Two of mine who are early risers are responsible for trash/recycling, opening blinds, turning on lights, and unloading the dishwasher. This “divide and conquer” strategy has been life-changing and life-giving rather than an exercise in ongoing drudgery.
These suggested systems will bring order to your mess, but they won’t solve everything! Make your adjustments, customizing for your family’s needs. Remember, none of it will work without the hard work of follow-through. When you forget to consistently inspect what you expect, you will find unmade beds, a floor hardly swept, and more work for yourself undoing a poor job, rather than chores done properly the first time. Rewards and punishments do not “fix” the hearts of our children, but they certainly do create a framework for children to interact with the real world as a team player, attentive to detail, doing honorable work as a proactive member of the community.
Martha Cook is the mother of ten children (5 adopted from Georgia (US), 2 from Ethiopia, and 3 biological). Martha has her Masters in Counseling. She thrives when she gets to encourage parents who are called to be a part of “setting the lonely in families.” Having experienced God’s abundant love for her and her family, she longs to share it with others. The Cooks live in Peachtree Corners, GA.