When I left for college, my younger brother moved into my room. Immediately. I’m not sure the over-packed van had pulled out of the driveway before he had all of my belongings stuffed into a cardboard box. I’m exaggerating of course but that is the nature of a large family. There is always someone next in line. Waiting for the coveted bedroom, hand-me-down jeans, or a turn driving the family car. I wouldn’t change the way I was raised for anything.
It has taught me to share, look out for others, and be patient. I’m now raising eight children much the way my parents raised me. We share one shower, one car, and a whole lot of hand-me-downs. In my childhood I always had someone to play with. I always had someone to fight with. I always had someone to talk to. It might have been easy to feel lost in the crowd but my parents always made me feel special. Much of this came through the special space they created for me. Just me. Here are a few things I’ve learned about carving out special space in a large family…
When my children were small, we had a square kitchen table. I loved that table. It had one long bench, four chairs, and three clip-on high chairs. At meal time, everyone scrambled for whichever was deemed the “good” seat. My three middle children slid down the bench, staking their claim on whatever spot they felt was the best. This typically ended in a fight or sad feelings. One day, our post-adoptive counselor was visiting as I prepared dinner. She observed the dinner time drama and with wrinkled eyebrows asked, “Does everyone have their own chair?” I responded that they did not and explained that I wanted them to share, take turns, compromise, etc. As I explained, it dawned on me that the freedom I had hoped for was really just creating a lack of structure.
My children needed to know what to expect each and every night. It was such a simple solution, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. The next night, I assigned chairs to each member of the family, including mom and dad. Little kids were divided among the big kids so that the older children could assist the little ones. The children with the most likelihood of fighting were kept separate. Before dinner I gathered everyone and explained the new plan. We set plates and cups at the seats according to who the chair belonged to. When there was homework to be done, supplies were kept at the proper seat. When a note or a special snack needed to go to school, the child could find it at his or her seat. That was 6 years ago. We’ve since changed tables and homes, but we all know exactly where we sit.
Bedrooms are private space. This makes logical sense. This is where we keep our things, sleep and dress. This is a place where we can be alone or have friends over. In a large family this isn’t always the case. At different times in our parenting journey, we have had between two and five children sharing a room. We recognize the need for personal space so we had to come up with a way to create that even when square footage is limited. We have hung curtains between beds, hung separate shelves for each child and walled off sections of the room using dressers. We have a simple rule in our house. Beds are off limits. No one may touch the bed, dresser, or shelf of another person. It is important to set the boundary and stick with it. Many of our children have trouble regulating their emotions. Having a bed to go to that is guaranteed to be just as it was left is a great home base.
Create a space for belongings and remind children that our belongings are off limits to others as long as they are put in the space they belong. Assign a hook for book bags, a hanger for coats, a box for shoes. Assign a certain color, sippy cup, toothbrush, bath sponge etc. If items are put away, they are not to be touched by another child. If a favorite toy or book is kept in the bedroom space, it is off limits. If clothes are in their proper drawers, they are not to be borrowed without permission by a sneaky big sister. We want our children to share but we also desire for them to begin setting boundaries that will last a lifetime. In large families there are often fewer things of value. By creating a space for everything and encouraging our children to keep items neatly and safely in their place, we are giving our children the tools to become responsible adults one day.
Spend time together. It’s so simple and sometimes the hardest thing to do as parents, but ever-so important. In a large family, spending time with each child is vital. This time can be anything. Sit with each child while they do homework. Shampoo each little child’s hair in the bathtub separately. Pray with each child before tucking them in at night. Invite just one child to run to the grocery to grab a gallon of milk. Commit to being fully present with each child every day. If you are picking one child up from practice, make sure you take a portion of the ride home to talk about what she learned. Invite each child to do their chore with you.
Sometimes as we prepare dinner, we ask each child to come into the kitchen to do a chore. It may be putting the dishes away or emptying the trash. Time together doesn’t always have to be something fun. Often working side by side with a child opens up conversation that would never have happened face to face.
Special space can be available to each child with a little intentionality.
How have you created special space for your children? Share your story with us in the comment section below.