10 Tips for Parenting a Happy Healthy Large Family

Guest Post by Young Mom. Regular readers know that I believe that large families are as marred by sin and selfishness as any other size family, and that the more people involved the greater the harm that can be done. So I am thrilled that Young Mom agreed to share her ideas on ways that parents of large families can parent well. Even more than always, be kind with your comments. And enjoy!

I am the oldest of 11 children. I enjoyed many things about growing up in a full house; a lot of what you hear about big families is true! There is always someone to play with, you learn to work together with lots of other people, and you get lots of opportunities to learn about caring for children of all ages. Personally, I love children, and I would even love to have a fairly large family myself.

It’s also true that having many children means that each child won’t get as much individual attention. I think that this fact ended up being helpful in my family. When there is emotional dis-function or excessive control from parents, less attention can be a bit of a relief. My world would have been very different if my parents had stopped with 2 or 3 children. The pressure I was under while living at home was so great, I can only imagine how it would have intensified if my parents had not been forced to spread themselves a little thinner. So yes, my family had its issues. I don’t feel that those issues were rooted in the amount of children; however, those issues were played out within a large family.

I have 3 young children myself, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to raise them. So when Rae asked me to do a post on what parents of large families can do to avoid some of the particular problems large families run into, I was interested. I can’t say I have a lot of experience in what to DO yet, but I do know some mistakes that the family I grew up in made that I will be avoiding at all costs, so I will share some of those.

1. Don’t tell your older children that “all their siblings are watching them” and the younger children’s actions are contingent on the behaviour of the older child. I had endless anxiety over my performance, and felt guilty over things that my siblings did! I felt responsible for every one’s behaviour and attitude as a child, and let me tell you it was exhausting! It may sound silly, but as a child that was my understanding of my role in the family.

2. Don’t demand perfection. It may be hard to keep expectations reasonable when you feel overwhelmed as a parent. But please remember that your kids are still learning. Never being able to fully please your parents is damaging, and for me it made me want to quit trying entirely. Comparing children to their siblings only makes them feel judged on the basis of performance levels. Give your children the gift of being good enough.

Recognize your children’s efforts. No they are not able to contribute as much as you can as an adult, and yes their standards may look a bit different from yours and their attitudes may not be as stellar as you’d prefer, but they are trying! Whether you believe it or not, your children want to please you! Be please-able! In a large family it can be easy to only recognize the really BIG things, try to see the little efforts of each child as well.

3. Respect your children. Realize that they are little people, with the same desires, emotions, struggles and challenges you have. They are just as fully a person as you are. Respect them and their feelings just as much as you would anyone else. As a child I often felt like my perspective was vetoed without consideration. In order to maintain control my parents often approached things with a formula and that meant an inability to listen to feedback. Listen to what your kids have to say, and don’t be afraid to apologize when you are wrong.

4. Please take care of yourself as a parent! As the parents of many children it is harder than ever to make the effort to take care of yourself. But I WISH my parents would have done this. I remember my mom being exhausted but refusing to get the rest she needed because she “had work to catch up on around the house”. I can recall months at a time where my mother never found the chance to leave the house. Often parents feel that by sacrificing everything they are truly being unselfish and caring for their children. I would argue that unless you are caring for yourself you are going to be incapable of fully caring for your children. When you are depleted, your children get the leftovers.

5. Don’t turn your older children into mini-parents. This is a big one, and the one I see parents of large families violate the most often. I see no problem with older siblings helping out with younger children. It can be fun and rewarding to help care for a little brother or sister. But please be careful that you don’t let it become full-time parenting. If your older child is responsible for dressing, feeding, teaching and watching a younger child, that is too much. Please remember that the older child is still just that, a child. They will do stupid things; they are not ready to be a parent. Please do not let them run a younger child’s life when they are too immature to run their own!

Situations where the older child has too much authority over and control of a younger sibling’s life can lead to very unhealthy situations including physical and sexual abuse.

Most particularly, NEVER give an older child the responsibility of disciplining siblings. Older children tend to have a hyper-sense of justice and want to please their parents, resulting in perfectionism. Now the younger children not only have their own parents to please, but myriads of older siblings’ standards and preferences to deal with. It is impossible to teach an older sibling how to discipline a younger sibling responsibly. You are the parent, do it yourself.

6. Don’t forget that you have younger children you can delegate chores too, they shouldn’t all end up on the older children’s to-do list. As the oldest child, I had a lengthy list of chores at an early age. The problem was that the list didn’t change, it was just added to. My mom at times felt overwhelmed at the prospect of teaching another child to do the same chore, it was easier to just let me take care of it. The result was that every chore I had at age 10 was still on my list when I was 17, plus all the additional chores that had been added as I matured. The responsibility was exhausting sometimes and I was always behind in my work because there was simply too much for me to try to keep up with.

7. Don’t make your kids responsible for your feelings. It’s easy to blame your kids for a bad day; after all they certainly contribute to the amount of work it takes to keep the family running! Please keep yourself from venting at your kids. It is unreasonable to expect children to bear the burden of their parents’ emotions. Yes, maybe you are feeling overwhelmed or unappreciated, but it is not your kids fault. Bad days happen for many reasons, and it’s OK to feel frustration, but be careful that you do not make your children feel guilty for existing and adding to your burden. Your children will have many needs, and by having many children you will have more needs than average to take care of! But having needs is not selfishness on their part.

8. Don’t forget that your children are individuals. The temptation with large families is to treat the entire group as a whole, forgetting the individuals that make up that group. Yes it may be more economical to have everyone take the same extra-curricular activity, but while piano lessons may be one child’s dream come true, don’t assume they will all feel the same way, and don’t make any child feel bad for having interests that lie elsewhere. Yes, one child may require more time in conversation, but that doesn’t mean they have a problem, maybe it’s just the way they relate. Another child may drag at chores, it may not be laziness, maybe it’s just personality. Give your kids the freedom to be who they are, even if it doesn’t fit your dreams, and even if it’s more inconvenient to have so many individuals. In the same way, watch out for sibling persecution. Peer pressure is one thing, making fun of a sibling or excluding them from interaction is so cruel, and it can be remembered for years. Try to be there to spot it and correct it, because the persecutors may not be fully aware of how their actions hurt their sibling.

9. Try to give attention to every child. This is related to recognizing them as individuals. Don’t expect every child to feel loved in the same way. Some may treasure gifts forever, others may forget about them the next day. Some may love having a quick chat; others may not be into talking so much. But in a large family, every child will value individual time, time with spent with their parent alone! Whether it’s reading a chapter of a book with Mom after everyone else was sent to bed, or going out to a fast food restaurant alone with Dad. It may seem like it is not worth the amount of effort, but taking the time to do something with each child individually and just drop everything and listen to them talk, is irreplaceable. Some of my best childhood memories are made up of those moments.

10. Be sure that each child has privacy and things of their own. You share a LOT in a large family, and in many ways its a great thing. But sometimes it can get exasperating when there are improper boundaries. Every child should have a few toys/possessions that only belong to them, that anyone else has to ask before touching. Most of the time, children in a large family do not get their own rooms, but try to give them a space of their own, whether it is a drawer that no one else can use, or a box where they can keep whatever they want. In the same way, respect boundaries as a child grows and matures. Make it possible for your children to have privacy for changing clothing and bathroom time. It may require some shift scheduling of the nighttime routines, but you’d be surprised how your teenage daughters might be willing to negotiate for 15 minutes uninterrupted in the bathroom to pluck their eyebrows and wash their face. If a child needs time alone, let them have it! You know you need time to recharge as a parent after your kids are in bed, well depending on the child, they might need quiet time as badly as you do!

Check out Permission to Live: Musings of a Young Mom for more of Young Mom’s posts!

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33 thoughts on “10 Tips for Parenting a Happy Healthy Large Family

  1. rachieannie

    Fascinating!! I really enjoyed reading her perspective, because while I did not come from a big family (3 of us with an 11 year age gap which mean my oldest brother moved out when I was 5 and I was an only child during high school), my husband came from a family of 6 and we have discussed how big we want our family to be. I think whether there are 2 or 12 children some of those things can happen and it’s important to be mindful of kids getting lost in the shuffle.

  2. Michelle

    Yay for a fabulous post! I see how much of some of these things my own parents did and we only had 5 growing up. But the extracurricular thing hits home the most. me, being the oldest of the four that were closest together, and the oldest girl, well, I almost always determined what the extracurricular activities were to be for my younger siblings. Not on purpose…but my mom thoughts since I enjoyed swimming and excelled at it, that my younger sibs would, too. Since I loved piano, my younger sister would also. and on and on.

    A lot of the time I think much can be summed up in simply respecting the unique dignity possessed by each person in the family. I’m amazed at how different each of my children is. And yes…it’s somewhat exhausting appealing to their different interests (and time consuming) but it’s worth it for them to understand that they really are special and unique and have different gifts from God.

    Nice job, YM!

  3. Maria

    Great post!!! What a nuanced perspective. I’ve always wished I grew up in a larger family. I’m the second of three sisters, and I’ve always thought that I would’ve been a good “big sister” if I had more siblings… instead of being second oldest/second youngest. I also gave felt sometimes growing up that the fewer siblings there are, the more intense the comparison and competition. My mom grew up the oldest of 9, I guess the family was pretty chaotic, and she decided 3 was enough. I hope to have a large family, someday, and I hope I have the grace to have a happy family, too.

  4. Erin

    Young Mum,

    Excellent article. I’m afraid I do understand where you are coming from all to well from my own childhood (oldest of 8 and was parented in somewhat a similar fashion)
    with my own children I have felt very strongly about those self-same issues, I more struggle to be constantly aware of points 8 & 9. I do feel we address them, but they have to be constantly in our minds.

  5. helena

    I wish you had a retweet button! This post is such a great resource. I’ve always said I want to have a lot if kids, and this gives such great insight to both the joys and the possible drawbacks.

  6. Mama Kalila

    I really appreciate this too… I came from a family of 5, but like the other commenter here there were special circumstances and I grew up an only child for the most part. Knew early on I preferred the other and wanted more. My hubby is one of 2 (just one brother) in a family of mostly large families so he grew up knowing he wanted a large one too. Things like this are good for us to think about now while we’re just starting. I can see some of it applying now with just our first too honestly.

    Thanks :-)

  7. Mama Kalila

    As it just hit me that my use of large is prob midsized here lol. There are some large families on my hubbies side, but mostly midsized like what we’re hoping for :-D I’d like 6.. He’d like 6. We’ll see what happens :-D

  8. Kacie

    Great post. As the oldest of six I think my parents did a great job with a large family, but then again…. I was the oldest and it seems to have been harder on the younger ones, especially for my youngest sister when my youngest brother was born with Downs Syndrome and drew so much attention from everyone.

    1. Young Mom

      It’s interesting, I’ve found alot of the people I know that were the older children in a large family, still desire to have fairly good sized families themselves. But the middle and youngest kids think otherwise. Maybe it’s just personality, but even though I spent alot of my childhood being a “little mommy” I still wanted kids of my own. However I do struggle with feeling as though I’ve been doing this stay-at-home mom thing for a very long time.

  9. Erin

    Interesting observation YM. Well we’re due to have our 9th baby, so I guess we’re large;) anyhow my husband is the 5th of 7 children and he was always keen to have a large family too. I’ll have to do an informal survey.

  10. Lois Brown Loar

    As a mom of 12, I really appreciate this article. I’ve always tried to avoid the pitfalls you mention here, such as too much responsibility on older sibs to “parent” younger ones, as well as time alone, privacy, and indiviualized extra curriculars.

    But one problem I STILL have even most have grown, married and have children of their own, the the propensity of older sibs, especially as teenagers, bossing youngers around as if they are parents, then not understanding WHY the younger sib is resentful of their input….”All I was trying to do was help him see……”

    I feel like I”ve been preaching the line…”He has two parents and YOU are not one of them” line for YEARS and YEARS! It hurts their relationships with each other…although, most of my now adult “children” get along with one another fairly well…..it’s just frustrating to me now as a parent.

    The other thing that all adult offspring should realize that if you have a sibling who is significantly younger than you, ina large OR small family…it’s not that we’re spoiling them or easier on them…it’s that we’ve also grown and learned a few things from our mistakes and are trying not to repeat them….

    My oldest daughter sometimes felt that she was the “guinea pig” as my husband and I worked into our parenting “style”…poor girl….

    At any rate this is an excellent list for parents of any size family.

    One thing I would add: Don’t push your child into some activity you “wish” you would have had opportunity to do as a child, or that you enjoyed as a child. If they enjoy it, that’s fine, but my football loving boys just were not into learning piano…..as an example…lol….

    And it’s ok if your child does moderately well at said activity or academics…..no child should have to feel like he MUST be the top all his/her activities.

    God Bless,


    1. Rae Post author

      Great advice! And I completely agree with Young Mom on this one… it is SO hard to not feel responsible for younger siblings. The only thing that makes me keep my mouth shut is that I saw how silly it was that my older siblings thought they knew what was best for me (of course I thought they had a better idea than my parents, but still, once we’re “adults” we should relate to each other as such). So I completely agree with you, but it is a challenge.

    2. Michelle

      Wow Lois! I only have four and my oldest is 9 and I have been telling her, “There’s one mom in this house…who is it?” for years! She’s been bossy since she was 5!!! So glad I’m not the only one that struggles with that!!!!!

  11. Faith

    As someone who came from a large family, I liked this article. However, it truly is from the point of view of the oldest. I came right smack in the middle of my big family of 9. Some of these points, while very worthwhile, are not just for large families but any sized-family. I know families of two children where I’ve seen problems with such things as points 2, 3, 7, 8 and 10 listed here. Maybe they are more likely to be violated in a large family, but they are certainly not exclusive to them.

    Also, as someone who watched her older siblings do things such as screw up royally on occasion(!), I have to say when a parent says: your siblings are watching you, it’s the truth! Unfortunately, life isn’t all hunky-dory and sometimes the placement of your birth makes things a little uncomfortable. Such is life. Everything has its up and down sides. As someone in the middle I was both the baby (not able to do things the older ones got to do and so jealous and a ‘tag along’) and the oldest (having often to take responsibility for the 3 under me) so I got a taste of both worlds.

    The thing to do in adulthood, I’ve found with my own 5 children is to forgive my own parents for being human and therefore imperfect. And also know that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be a perfect parent either and I’ll have to rely on my kids’ forgiveness too!

    1. Young Mom

      I agree, many of the points can apply to all family sizes. These are just the issues that I spotted most prominently in my own large family growing up. Its interesting to hear the perspective of someone who grew up in the middle of a large family.

      I understand that the younger kids are watching the older kids, but I do not believe that the younger childs behavior is contingent on the older one. I followed every rule my parents laid out, so I did everything “right” and I still watched all 3 sisters after me “screw up royally” as you put it. I felt as though I had failed them somehow because of that. I realize now that their behavior was not my fault.

      Forgiveness is so important, I know that I will make my own mistakes, for sure! Forgiveness does not mean I can’t notice and learn from my parents mistakes.

    2. Rae Post author

      Hi Faith, one of the reasons that I asked Young Mom to write this was so that there could be something on my blog from the perspective of an eldest child. I have written many other things (you’re most welcome to hunt around!) from my perspective (I have 6 older and 4 younger siblings) and I think that the eldest child perspective is really crucial! So please don’t just dismiss it since it doesn’t happen to match up with your own.

      Also, Young Mom didn’t say that younger siblings don’t watch their older siblings. But that doesn’t mean that parents should try to use it to guilt-trip the older children into being good examples. It is still a poor way to parent, even if it is based on facts. Manipulation is a result of desperation or selfishness, not of love. And we all want to be loving parents, right?

  12. Erin

    This was an excellent guest post. I think that all parents – whether they have 1 kid or 14 – should take your advice to take care of themselves. Martyrdom in parenthood is everywhere – and it is a horrible burden on children.

  13. Pingback: Large Families

  14. Nicole @MTDLBlog

    This was such a great post and really gave me some renewed perspective. I had twins about a year ago, and I also have an older daughter who is five. This post was a great reminder of her needs. I’ll be back to see you! Following you on Twitter as well.

  15. Matt

    Great article — particularly #1 — that’s something we were beginning to do with our oldest (say “now don’t do this or that because your little sister is watching and you have to teach her how she should act”) as it seemed rational to do that! :( … but now I can see that this is NOT a good approach! Thank-you :)

  16. Jan

    I am expecting #13 next month, and our eldest (age 19) has recently moved out on his own.

    I agree that older kids should not be made to feel guilty if their younger siblings make mistakes, even ones that they, themselves, made–but at the same time, I see nothing wrong with telling the older kids that they need to “set a good example” for the younger ones.

    Also, with regard to chores, one way we’ve handled it is to have the older ones “pass the torch” by actually teaching the younger ones to do the jobs they once had. You are absolutely right that even the little kids can pitch in!

    ***And it is very important to let older kids know how much you value them!***

    I have joked with my eldest (and even apologized to him) about his being our “guinea pig.” He realizes that we, as parents, are always learning, too. Perhaps the best thing we can do for our children is admit that we are human, apologize when we make mistakes, and ask them to help us be better.

    I also agree that parents need to take care of themselves, but that also means eating healthy and exercising regularly. We, too, must set a good example.

    All in all, very valid points made here by Young Mom. The only thing that bothers me about it is the way it comes across as a criticism of her parents. This “Don’t” list would be best paired with some “Do” items, so we can see what things they did right, as well.

  17. Jillian

    I just stumbled on this somehow, and I want to say (as a mother of 6) THANK YOU! It’s really good to see how I can improve from the child’s retrospect. As one of 6 myself, and watching other large families make some of these mistakes, I was aware of many of them, but it’s a good reminder I’ll want to revisit often. Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of the day, it’s easy to slip into any of these mistakes.

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