Large-Family Dynamics

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When Leah chose a name for her third son, she called him "Levi". The Medrash explains that while she only had two children, she was able to give each son one hand when they went out. Now that she had a third son, her husband Yaakov would have to accompany her to hold the third child. The extra child drasticaly changed the dynamics of the family. Until now, if Leah complained that she needed help with the children, Yaakov could tell her, "Listen. You have two hands. Hold Reuven in one hand and hold Shimon in the other hand and you will be alright." With the new addition to the family, Yaakov cannot give such advice. Yaakov now needs to change his daily program and, when necessary, leave whatever he is doing and go with Leah to help her handle the children.


The purpose of this article is not to suggest that a large family is better or worse than a small family. Whatever HaKodesh Boruch Hu gives or does not give to a husband and wife is tailor-made for them and we cannot question the Divine Plan.


The point here is that much of the advice given for parenting is directed to small families and is not always practical for large families.


It is good to spend time with each child every day. If the family is of 3 children, giving each child 10 minutes will "cost" 30 minutes a day. But if the family has 12 children, the parents will need to devote 2 hours each day to talking with their children.


Many systems recommend generous rewards to encourage good behavior. Four rewards per week at a dollar a prize will cost the 3-child family $624 per year, but it will give the 12-child family a yearly bill of nearly $2500.


Parents are often advised to explain to children the reasons for instructions and to offer a choice when possible. If giving these explanations accounts for an extra five minutes per day for each child, then giving instructions this way will take the parents of the 3-child family 15 minutes more per day. Parents of the 12 children will need to find an extra hour.


Each child contributing a "dvar Torah" to the Shabbos meal adds 15 minutes to the small families mealtime, but it will stretch the large families meal by an extra hour, during which each child will be expected to listen to the "Divrei Torah" of all the other children.


Similarly, encouraging each child to add their comments to the Seder night might add an extra 30 minutes to the Haggada of the 3-child family, but make the children of the 12-child family stay up for an extra 2 hours.


All the pre-Shabbos cooking of the smaller family - 15 portions - would suffice for only one meal of the larger family. The mother of the larger family becomes a mini-caterer producing over 40 portions each Shabbos.


If each child changes their shirt/dress and underware every day, then the mother of the 3-child family has to wash, dry, fold and put away about 35 articles of clothing a week - about 140 "laundry-handlings" per week. Keeping the children of the 12-child family cleanly dressed will require about 520 "laundry-handlings"


School sends a note that no children are allowed to come to school until the parents have thoroughly checked their childdren for head-lice and cleaned the heads of every child. When the parents of the 3-child family get their note, they know they have about 3 hours of work ahead of them. The parents of the 12-child family have to resign themselves to the fact that their children will have to miss at least one day of school because they will not be able to put in their many hours of hard work before the next morning.


Nowadys, even expensive shoes rarely last the season. If each new pair costs on average about $25 and takes about 10 minutes to fit, the smaller family need to budget about $150 per year and an hour of shopping time. The larger family is going to run up a yearly bill of $600 and will need to allot about 4 hours for shopping.


Organised storage space is one of the keys to an efficiently-run home. Not only does the larger family need 4-times as much closet space for clothes in use, it also needs four times as much storage space for out-of-season clothing and winter-bedding during the summer.


Children of large families might not need outside friends because they can get all the company they need from their own brothers and sisters. But this might limit their language and social skills - they might develop a closed-circle mentality.


In former times, parents could rely on at least the girls helping in the house. Nowadays, homework and studying for exams fills much of the children's time at home and often leaves them tired and ill-tempered.


Having a child home because he is ill is stressful and can spoil the most carefully planned programs. If each child is down with flu, a cold, tummy ache or any other complaint, twice a year, then the parents of the 3-child family will unexpectedly have a child home every two months. The parents of the larger family can expect to have their plans "thrown" every two weeks. In fact, getting anyhere on time is a minor miracle for the large family. And the reception they get when they do eventually arrive rarely reflects appreciation of the effort (and expense) that goes into maneuvering a large family.


Often people are advised that they need to "get away" for a rest or a change. For the parents of a large family, that is often a distant dream. Large families are invited out less as the family gets larger. Going for an outing becomes increasingly more expensive and a real holiday is often just impossible.


Please note that these differences are cumulative. Let the reader now go back over the (partial) list and add-up the differences between these two families in terms of housework, hours needed for the children and $$$'s of budgeting - and how much relaxation they can look forward to.


The point here is not "better" or "worse" but "different". With good intentions, a counselor recently suggested to the father of a large, low-income family that his wife should take a job to help the finances. Such advice might be good for a small family in which the children are out at school most of the day, the wife can take care of the housework in the afternoon and evening and they can afford a maid to come in to clean and tidy.


Fortunately, the father had the good sense not to relay that piece of advice to his wife. He knew that following such a suggestion could destroy his already over-worked wife and bring chaos to the family.


Reading biographies of great activists of the past and present can fill the hearts of parents of large families with dismay. "What do we do? We are stuck in our house all the time. We just don't have the time or strength to go out doing chessed and being mekarev hundreds of people". There are no books about the heroism and self-sacrifices of the parents of large families. Who would buy a book relating the achievements of a mother and father who, every year, change two thousand diapers, spend eight hundred hours listening to their children, wash and dry and fold and put away five thousand articles of clothing, prepare ten thousand meal-portions, etc, etc.?


Those who go out and do wondrous acts of chessed, etc, can be proud of their achievements. But the fathers and mothers of large families should be just as proud of their own "in-house" heroism.


The parents of large families often just do not have the time, energy, patience, finances and living-space to follow advice directed to smaller families. The resources are different, the dynamics are different, and, often, the issues are different.


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