10 Lessons I Learned in My Big Family

The whole family can get in on this silly face thing.  Even the in-laws are adept at these skills.

When you are raised as part of a big family, you feel a sense of pride in the number of siblings you have.  I would feel angry when I wasn’t the student in the classroom with the most siblings.  (I have vivid memories of meeting a girl in high school Spanish class who had 9 siblings when I had 8 and I probably missed out on having an awesome friend because I swore to hate her forever after.)

It becomes a competition after that. “Oh yeah?  You have more siblings?  Well, my mom is one of ELEVEN children!”  Or you qualify your numbering by saying, “And none of those are twins or triplets” like multiple births is cheating.  Or you say, “And those are all from the same set of parents” like having one set of prolific parents counts for more points than multiple sets of prolific parents.

Regardless of who wins the biggest family competition, you realize after talking to your competitors, that they understand you in a way your other classmates just don’t.  There are aspects of their personalities that just make sense in your big-family-minded psychology.  And this is because living with a big family teaches you lessons.  Makes you special.

Lesson #1:  You have strengths and weaknesses.  Partner up accordingly.

When you have enough siblings to make teams, you learn to very quickly size up the people around you so that you can form the best possible team for the competition.  Whatever that competition is.  An argument.  A game.  A manipulation.  A chore.  Whatever.  Not only that, but your siblings are not shy about explaining to you why they chose someone else for their “team” and so you become (sometimes painfully) aware of your weaknesses.  Instead of making you feel helpless because of these weaknesses, it reminds you to find someone to compliment them and make your team stronger.This also makes you feel valued for your strengths because they are equally bold in explaining why they want you on their team.  

This is not limited to formal and official competitions.  If you were in a room and an argument over what to eat for dinner begins, you automatically pick sides based on who is in the argument.  I learned fast to always pick Jen’s side in an argument because she was ruthless and never pick Jes’ side because she would fold in a heartbeat. (I love you, Jes.  You fold out of love, not out of weakness.)

Lesson #2:  Someone is always watching you.

Seriously.  ALWAYS.  You can’t do anything without someone knowing about it.  You have older siblings who want you to toe the line and younger siblings who want to emulate you. And if your parents are good at this big family thing (and mine were) your younger siblings have been trained to innocently spy on you.  It’s not that we’re trained to tattletale, it’s just that a simple statement like “Go check and see how Bo is doing” or “Can you make sure that Jake is doing okay?” makes a younger sibling feel like they’re helping an older sibling in a very special way.  So when we come back with, “Bo is great!  He’s showing Jake how to mudwrestle in the backyard,”  we have no idea that we’ve just betrayed them.  And younger siblings remember EVERYTHING.  At least mine do.  (Ahem, Joe.) So you learn quickly to make better decisions and you also learn that you will eventually get caught.  Almost inevitably.

Lesson #3:  Figure out who is in charge.

In a big family, there is always someone in charge.  This is a big thing that I’ve noticed about smaller families – there is no desire for someone to be in charge.  They can sit in a room and have very little power-play because they are comfortable with everyone being in charge of themselves.  Not in a big family.  In a big family, you are trained from birth that your older siblings are in charge of you simply because they’re older than you.  Sometimes there are events that occur that disrupt that age hierarchy, but that’s rare.  For example, my older brother Jimbo did not like to be in charge.  He wanted to be alone.  So when he was left in charge, he put me in charge and locked himself in his room to play Savage Garden at an unhealthy volume.  I think in some ways this has damaged me in a way that makes me believe that I am permanently in charge….

Anyway, once you’ve read a room and figured out who is in charge, this will help in case of arguments or if one of your siblings tries to tell you what to do.  Only the sibling who is in charge can tell you what to do. If there is an argument, the final decision goes to the sibling in charge.  If you can’t decide what to watch on TV or what to eat for lunch or what to do for fun, the final decision goes to the sibling in charge.  And everyone else has to respect that.  (How do you small-family people make decisions if no one is in charge?!  I guess everyone makes their own decisions independently?  You mean, you don’t make ONE thing for lunch and everyone has to eat it without whining?  Everyone can make their own lunch?  No way….not possible.)

Lesson #4:  Make your expectations known.

When there are so many people in the same house, it would be stupid to assume that everyone knows what you want all the time.  Maybe in a small-family house, everyone would know that you like your cereal in the big orange bowl because you eat it that way every day, and they would stay away from it.  But in a big-family house your younger sibling wants to use that bowl too just because you use it every day and you have to make sure they understand it’s off limits.  You never assume that they’ll understand without your say-so because they won’t.  I would get a monster box of Frosted Mini Wheats for Christmas every year and even if I would write my name on box, the only time my brothers wouldn’t eat them was when I would write “DO NOT EAT” on the box multiple times.  So you just get used to telling people what you want and how you want it.  You can’t blame them for not living up to your expectations if you never told them what you expected!

Lesson #5:  Go with the flow.

When there are too many people to accommodate everyone’s every whim, you get used to rolling with the punches.  Sometimes you get it your way and sometimes you’re the one who gets disappointed, but you NEVER get upset when it doesn’t work out your way.  It’s all about what works for the majority.  You want to do Christmas on Christmas morning?  Okay.  Who else does that work for? If it doesn’t work for most of the siblings, then you figure out another time.  Even if it doesn’t work the best for you.  You just learn that things don’t have to be perfect and you don’t throw a fit when they’re not.  Can you imagine what it would be like in a house with 11 people if everyone threw a fit when it didn’t go their way?!  Goodness.

Lesson #6:  Take care of each other.  Sometimes that means you drop everything.

You definitely learn to take care of each other in a big family.  In the obvious ways, like helping your sibs find their shoes or pouring them a cup of milk, but also in less obvious ways like making faces at them while they nervously prepare for their band solo or bringing your obviously uncool sister to parties with your friends because she’s scared of public school.  You know exactly what to do to make each one of your siblings feel better after a bad day and you know exactly how to do it.  To this day, I know when my brother Joe is having a bad day and I’ll sometimes say to his wife (even though she knows better than I do) “He needs to watch a movie.  Any movie.”

Sometimes this means that what we need is for all of us to get together and we’ll end up making some excuse for a party and staying up way later than we wanted to and keeping our kids up past bedtime just because we need to be together.  It’s all about taking care of each other.  There is an intense connection in big families and we don’t question it when the spirit moves us to be together.  It’s like we’re all connected by these elastic cords and when they’ve been stretched too far too long, they snap us back together and we have no choice but to obey.    

Lesson #7:  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

My mother would ask us all the time growing up, “What is the golden rule?!” usually out of desperation and exhaustion.  But it really hammered into our brains that we should treat people the way we want to be treated.  When you live in a house that is constantly full of people who can recall at any moment any of a thousand things you have done wrong in the past, it really helps to try to be nice to them.  I remember one time I was arguing with Jen (because she was in charge and I don’t respond well to not being in charge) and Jake was in the next room keeping score. (He literally had a paper and pencil and was making tallies every time someone said something particularly good.) At the end of the argument, he told me I won and, after a brief pause to sift through some mental files, I said, “You know that time you drew with permanent marker in one of my books?  You’re forgiven.” I just remember thinking that maybe he’d forgive me one day.  Or maybe Jen would forgive me one day.  Or maybe ANYONE would forgive me one day.  

So I remember this when I am tempted to do something awful to someone.  If I do this awful thing, I am opening myself up to the possibility of awful things being done to me. Like when Jes locked Bo out of the house and then he broke a window coming back into the house and they both got in trouble. Or when I let my cat kill Bo’s snake and he farted into a jar and left the jar in my room for me to find…and open….(P.S.  Never open a seemingly random empty jar.)

Lesson #8:  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I first heard this phrase in that classic episode of The Twilight Zone where an ugly lady goes in to get her face surgically altered so that she could be attractive again.  I won’t ruin it for you, but they talk about how beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I had to have my dad explain it to me.  He also used to say “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  Or once (when eating a bowl of cereal that was all crumbs because it was the bottom of the box) “One man’s crumbs is another man’s cereal.”  

This was something we definitely experienced in our big family.  A joke I used with one sibling would fall flat, but the same joke with another one would be quoted decades later.  I used to play this game with my younger brothers where I was a psychiatrist and they would come to me for therapy sessions. Jake and Joe played along because it made me happy, but eventually they told me it was stupid and they wouldn’t play anymore.  But Rico honestly enjoyed his sessions and he would totally dive head first into his therapy.  I’m not certain, but I think he actually thought I was qualified to provide psychiatric help.  It’s the same with just about anything.  Jes and I are completely addicted to my mother’s pies, but Jen thought they were no good.  We learned very quickly that not everyone is going to love everything you love.  And sometimes that meant you had to sit through The Iron Giant AGAIN because Jack just couldn’t get enough. But eventually you will probably find someone who agrees with you and loves what you love, if you just ask enough people.

This also means we are not quick to share our opinion about everything.  You know those people who just have to tell the room how they feel about every single thing?  We don’t do that.  We wait to share until our opinion might add to the conversation.  Well…this is true for all members of big families except the oldest sibling, because they were alone long enough to think their opinion is the most important.

Lesson #9:  Why do anything alone?

The only thing I did alone growing up was bathe, use the toilet and change my clothes.  Every other time, there was someone around that I had to interact with.  When I was reading a book, my brothers would ask me questions about the people on the cover or what was happening in the story.  When I was making dinner, my brothers were providing their suggestions for what it needed or whining about what they wanted to eat instead.  When I was cleaning, my brothers were complaining about the fact that I was making them clean too.  But we never did anything alone.  We went to the library as a group.  We went to the store as a group.  We walked to the bus stop as a group.  We went to school as a group.  We did church events together.  We ate meals together. If we asked to go somewhere, the answer almost always included, “Take so-and-so with you.”

How this looks in my life now is that I like it when people tag along at the grocery store.  I turn the television on to make my home a little more noisy while I’m doing housecleaning or grading or napping.  My gut reaction to a party invitation is “I wonder if Jes is going” or “Maybe I can ride with mom.”  Even now with three small children, I wonder if I would enjoy some alone time, but I have a hard time imagining what I would do then.  Maybe take a nap (with the tv on).

And I feel weird when I talk to my youngest brother Jack because he’s the only one at home with my mom now and he does quite a bit alone.  I don’t know what that’s like at all.  When I was a junior in high school, Jake was a freshman, Joe was in 7th grade, Rico was in 4th grade and Jack was 2.  There was no chance I’d get a moment alone.  But I think Jack still has some of the same habits.  He is constantly listening to music because it’s “too quiet” otherwise, for example.  On days he doesn’t have to go to school, he sometimes chooses to come to MY school just because.  

Lesson #10:  Do your part.

When there are a billion people living in one house, the mess can be enormous.  Seriously monumental.  We found very quickly that if one person refused to do their chore, everyone would refuse to do their chore and chaos quickly ensued.  Not only that, but when we have to get something done – anything done – we are quick to divvy up the responsibilities and delegate.  Part of this goes back to knowing strengths and weaknesses, so we know who to put in charge of what, but we definitely break it up.  We never have a party where one person is in charge of food.  No way.  We never plan something without everyone’s input and we definitely don’t forget to invite people to participate even if we know they won’t come.  This means we have huge whole-family conversations on Facebook where our phones are buzzing and beeping every minute for an hour and a half.  My husband can’t keep up with these conversations and by the time he sits down to read them, he has 50 unread messages and most of them are inside jokes or personal insults aimed lovingly at each other.  He waits for me to tell him the important parts.

But there is a distinct understanding that you are going to carry your load.  That you are going to uphold your end of the bargain.  And you expect everyone else to do that too.  And again, you’ve made your expectations clear so there is no confusion.  I think I’m starting to repeat myself.

And so, when I was still very young (after I was in my I’m-going-to-be-a-nun phase and right before my I’d-rather-remove-my-own-ovaries-with-a-spoon phase) I decided that I was going to have a big family.  I knew that these were lessons my kids needed to learn and that I wouldn’t teach them as well as a house full of people would teach them.

And I’ve discovered something since then.  I don’t have to fill my house with my own children to make them learn this.  I can fill my house with my brothers and sisters and their children and they can learn the same lessons.  The more my house is full – of ANYONE – the more my children learn about people and how to handle them.

That said, we are expecting #5 in August.  Yay to full houses!  (We NEVER forget to count our Luna.  Even though she doesn’t get to fill our house physically, she fills our house emotionally and losing her taught us and our kids just as much as having her would.)

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