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Don't try this at home: On life with a large family

Posted April 11

The definition of a big family has changed. Last year, we met the president of the Large Families of Europe organization, and he told us their requirement for membership was to have three kids. (Deseret Photo)

Many, many years ago, we read an engaging book called “Cheaper by the Dozen,” by siblings Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, originally published in 1948.

It was a best-seller in its day and twice became a movie. It was the story of a family of 14 — two parents and 12 children — and how they coped with the complexities of so many people under one roof.

Big families like that aren't as common today, we've noticed. At the World Congress of Families held in Salt Lake City last year, we met the president of the Large Families of Europe organization, and he told us the requirement for membership was to have three kids. We were in Germany and Switzerland recently, and the more common parental dilemma is whether to have one child or two.

Most Europeans seem to be fascinated by truly large families, though, and when they hear that we have nine children and 28 grandchildren, they look at us with a gaze that seems equal parts confusion, admiration, pity and wonder.

We figured that if a double-digit family was a novelty in the ’50s when “Cheaper by the Dozen” was published, it has to be even more of one today. So we started writing a book about our own rowdy group a few years ago. We have, in homage to some of our crazier adventures, tentatively titled it “Don’t Try This at Home.” Whether we will ever publish it is another question — maybe it will just be for our own family history — but we feel like we ought to share some bits of it occasionally. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

“Our favorite song while we lived in England was a British children’s tune that went:

At half past three we go home to tea, or maybe a quarter to four,

When five pairs of feet go running down the street and in at their own front door,

And it’s rough and tumble, rattle and noise, mothers and fathers, girls and boys,

Baby’s in the carry cot, cat by the stove, a little bit of quarreling and lots of love.

“We live in a world where individuality and independence and 'freedom' are valued more (worshipped more) than interdependence and integration and commitment to family. As a broader society (and this is reflected in our literature, our entertainment and our lifestyles), many have all but forgotten that real family life produces levels of love, complexity, irony, humor, joy and an infinitely richer texture than solitary experience can ever generate.

“This book is intended to remind us of that. Our family’s experience is anything but perfect, anything but uniformly positive. But what we have accomplished and what we have failed at have been joint efforts, and 11 perspectives and 11 empathies and 11 resiliencies are better than one.

“And the book is also a bit of a heads-up and a notice — that this type of family-centric lifestyle is disappearing.

“Even as our world becomes more connected electronically, it is becoming less connected emotionally. Whereas it was once nearly impossible to live alone and independent from others, people do it all the time now, with 50 percent of American adults now being single — and the social and psychological costs are immense. Human beings — particularly children — need and crave an identity larger than themselves, and if family does not provide it, they will find it in a gang or an online chat room. Our children are part of so many cultures, from the Internet culture to the peer culture, but when there is no core family culture, they are like neutrons without a nucleus.”

Of course, there is nothing inherently superior or advantageous about a large family. Many one- or two-child families develop the same wonderful identity and interdependence in their homes.

But families of any size are our greatest teachers. They teach us about responsibility and sacrifice. They cause us to develop the deepest empathy and the most unconditional love. And while they certainly have their “moments,” the single best word to describe the aggregate experience of family life is “joy.”

Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors and founders of JoySchools.com who speak worldwide on family issues. Their new books are “The Half-Diet Diet” and “Life in Full.” See valuesparenting.com or eyrealm.com.

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