Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why The Big Family?

The Question:

I've been here with you this week. Your home is crammed with 24 people and I adore them all. This Christmas has truly been magical and I have felt so blessed to be a part of this family. There are so MANY people to love, who love me and love my kids. It feels like the ultimate support system for life, and I know it will only get bigger and better with time. You were not raised with so many siblings and I want to know what inspired you to have a big family. What motivated you to keep having children? Is it what you envisioned it would be?

The Answer: The Big Family--A Lost Institution

Maybe because I grew up with just one brother (my other siblings were already grown), I always wanted a large family. I liked the way it felt in homes full of children. Once we got over the hump of 3 or 4, it actually got much easier. And today, as I experience the "law of the harvest" I am so grateful that I stayed the course. My life is brimming with loved ones.

Just a generation ago, large families were the norm. Most people I meet who are 50 or older grew up in a family of at least six. And they loved it! They eagerly talk about the happy home of their childhood--sleeping out under the stars, piling in the car to go to the movies, sharing a bedroom. They finish by saying that they only have two children of their own. I wonder why that is. What turned the tide of the big family? Was it the feminist movement that assured us that there was much more to life than diapers and mopping? Or was it the changing standard of living that made us believe that things were more valuable than people? I think it was a simple, subtle shift in thinking that more money and fewer children would produce quality instead of quantity. And little by little, we came to believe that the way we grew up--six kids in three bedrooms with an unfinished basement--wasn't acceptable. I beg to differ.

All the things we want our children to be, just seem to happen naturally in a big family. They become undemanding and even grateful. They learn early to give and take. They ride together in the car and if one of their pant legs happen to touch one of their sibling's pant legs, it's okay. In fact they learn to lean on each other in every sense. Obviously, the budget is always stretched. Even so, everyone is excited about "another new baby". Doesn't it occur to them that now there'll be less to go around . . . "less for me"? No. Because without ever having to say it, we teach them that people will always be the best part of life. And this baby is a friend forever.

I haven't begun to mention the qualities fostered in a big family--self-motivation, creativity and resourcefulness for starters. Mom can't be everywhere and if you need something urgently, you'd better figure it out. (No wonder Benjamin Franklin (one of 17) invented the wood stove, bifocals and discovered electricity. "Somebody better do it," he probably thought.) There is security and self-esteem. Even when the girl at school says your pants are too baggy, your group of friends decides you're out and the bus driver is a grouch, there's always a friend at home--usually five or six.

And about college. How are all those kids going to go to college? So far, our oldest five children have put themselves through with only minimal help from us and no government aid. They're making sure that the ones at home are keeping their grades up and working toward scholarships. We've never dealt with alcohol, drugs or premarital sex. The lessons we carefully taught our oldest children become magnified as they filter down through the family.

Feeding, clothing, driving and nurturing a large family is hard work for both Dad and me. But the greatest and most lasting lessons they've learned in our home, the ones that are the most deeply ingrained in their hearts, are the ones we didn't have to teach at all. I can't imagine how we could have. You can't just say "be selfless" and expect it to happen. They need an environment that makes it essential.

On the night of Christmas this year, all the fun came to a sad halt when 11 year old Marielle discovered that her beloved dog, Josh, was seriously injured. The family kept vigil with her until he died. I slept next to her as she cried herself to sleep and felt inadequate to see her through this awful loss. I was unprepared the next morning, for the outpouring of love and support she received from her siblings. Natalie made her favorite breakfast. Mikelle took her for a walk. Andy made her a memory book about Josh. Dad and Nick dug a grave in the frozen ground. The whole family gathered for a funeral. Marielle was enveloped in a level of comfort and support that I could never have given alone.

I know this has been a long response but it's a sad thing for me to watch the demise of the big family. We've lost something so wonderful. I can't help but wish we could find it again.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How To Raise Grateful Children?

The Question:
During this giving time of year I have spent some time pondering this question. How do you teach your children to be grateful for whatever they are given? I suspect a heart full of gratitude something you can instill in your child, but how do you go about doing it?

The Answer:
As parents, we naturally try to teach our children manners. We encourage them to say "thank you" as they leave a birthday party or receive a gift. But as in all other outward expressions, what we are really after is inward feelings. We can tell when a child is truly grateful and, really, is there anything more wonderful? Everyone loves to be around a grateful child and enjoys doing things for them.

I have two suggestions. The first is fairly obvious but difficult to do. We do not give our children everything they want. I remember a time when we lived in Georgia. Our neighbor invited our 8 year old daughter Marlee to go to the mall with her daughter. When she came home, she could barely breathe, she was so excited. They had eaten at the food court, bought bags of candy at the candy store and she was even given a new Cinderella watch! It wasn't a birthday or any special occasion--just a trip to the mall. I called to thank our neighbor for this generous gesture and she said, "Marlee was so grateful! She tried not to take the watch but when I bought it for her anyway, she thanked me again and again. It was so fun!" On her own, Marlee wrote a letter of thanks and took it over the next day. Was I an expert teacher of manners? No. Marlee was one of 8 children and had never been indulged in that way. She understood that toys and gifts were only given on special occasions and often at a sacrifice. She had learned not to even ask for things. She had learned to be happy with what she had and her gratitude was sincere and abundant--even when gifts were far less dramatic.

As family sizes have dropped and prosperity has increased, teaching gratitude has become a little more tricky. We have to resist the temptation to run out and buy everything our kids want or even seem to need, when they need it. Their real needs are met as we spend time with them. When you are standing in the store debating about whether to buy them this "thing" that you know would make them so happy, resist. Go home and read with them, take a walk, teach them a new song. Children who are given a steady stream of things, come to expect them. Why should they be grateful?

A second aspect of gratitude is, oddly enough, hard work. I'm not sure why they are linked but I know that they are. My mother used to say (and she was very wise) "As soon as my children start to whine or seem ungrateful, it's my signal that they aren't working hard enough. It's time to plan some big work projects for them." It's true! It never fails. Last summer, I planned a large physical work project for each morning. We worked in the garden, cleaned the garage, detailed the cars, burned slash in our woods. I was prepared for complaints. Instead, there were numerous expressions of gratitude--for the popsicles at the end of a hot job, for lunch, for letting them have a friend over later.

Sometimes, our children become ungrateful when we let them order us around. We are obligated to provide all of their basic needs, but beyond that, our efforts are gifts that they can appreciate. When they are demanding, we should simply say, "I'm sorry, I can't help you right now." With the demands of running a household, we really aren't always at their disposal. Go over the things you have to do before you can play a game, give them a ride, or help with homework and encourage them to help you. And don't forget to get right down on their level and express gratitude for any of their efforts.

When our children seem spoiled and bratty, it's probably something we're doing. It's time to step back and institute some changes. We want to enjoy them and we want others to appreciate them as well. Isn't it funny that the solution is usually to give them less, not more?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Make the Most of the Holidays?

The Question:
What advice do you have about making this time of year magical for your family without going crazy or going overboard? How do you keep things simple? How do you balance the spiritual and the commercial? What traditions can you not do without? If you could go back, what would you change about how you've celebrated Christmas over the years? (feel free to share a few of your favorite treat recipes too=)

The Answer:
How Christmas can be Perfect

For many years, I read every article I could find about Christmas traditions. I wanted to know what everyone out there was doing. What if there was a vital ritual that I was missing? Mostly, I wasn't all that impressed by what I read. What? Open presents on Christmas Eve? Pizza for Christmas dinner because it simpler? I finally made my peace with the fact that my own traditions--the ones I inherited from my mother and her mother and the ones I invented through trial and error--are not only fun and enjoyable, but they form a recurring pattern that bonds us together year after year. These are some of my favorites:

I made a Christmas book of stories and carols many years ago. It includes one story and a song for each night of December. We light a long taper candle with 24 dots painted on it and while we sing and read, the candle burns to the next dot. Over the years, I've replaced a few of the stories with new ones I've found. I like them to be true but some are classics. No matter how many times we've read them, they never grow old. We end by reading a passage about Jesus and we talk about how we can be more like him in our lives.

I keep an eye out for a service project or two for our family to do in December. Through the years, these have been some of the highlights of our Christmas. Once we challenged our children to donate some of their money to families in Bolivia where our son was a missionary. They gave almost all they had. Another time, we took a big basket of food and presents to a woman we knew who was going through some severe financial struggles. We delivered them and stayed to visit. We never forgot her gratitude. This year we spent several hours helping an elderly friend to decorate her house so she'd be ready for her grandchildren to come. Every year I pray to find something we can do and every year, these opportunities fall right in our lap.

I make Christmas pajamas. I started making them when I had one child and this year I made 22 pairs of pajama pants! One for each of my children, their spouses and all the nine grandchildren. If anyone is interested I can teach you how. They are very easy. I don't even have patterns. I buy matching t-shirts for 2 or 3 dollars. I love this tradition. On Christmas eve, I hand them out and everyone scatters to change into them. A few minutes later, everyone is dressed alike. It's so fun! And....dressed in our Christmas pajamas...we're ready for another great tradition....

The Christmas Eve Buffet! The table is loaded with all sorts of wonderful foods. We always have a ham and rolls and some salads, dips, finger foods, desserts--new recipes, old ones. I get out the punch bowl and decorate the table and make it truly special. After that...

We act out the Nativity. I have a bin full of costumes and props I've collected over the years and everyone dresses up. The costumes are very simple--just rectangles of fabric with a hole in the center for a head to come through, and a sash. Another rectangle for the scarf and another sash to tie around. Dad narrates from Luke 2 and I direct the actors. We sprinkle a few songs throughout and end with Silent Night. No matter how chaotic it becomes, I love this ritual as well. It tells our children clearly that this is the culmination, the reason for Christmas.

We hang our stockings and go to bed and then on Christmas Day, we stay in our pajamas til noon or all day and play our new games and eat leftovers from the buffet.

These are our traditions. I've done most of these things since I was a little girl. You should have seen my mother's lovely Christmas buffet. I think of her every time I decorate the table and make the slush. And I won't lie. It's a lot of work to keep these things going. But I think that's ok. And I hope my children feel my love through my efforts.

The point I want to make,though, is that my traditions are not for everyone. They make my Christmas satisfying because I have repeated them for so many years. Families develop bonds and identities by the things that happen again and again in their lives. So it doesn't really matter what you do, as long is you keep doing it. Maybe every year on Christmas eve, you decorate sugar cookies and take them to your neighbors. Maybe you have a formal sit-down dinner on Christmas day. Whatever it is, keep it up--especially if it's something you loved doing as a child. Then the bond becomes generational.

When it comes to Christmas presents, our big family has made extravagance impossible. Each child gets one pretty nice gift and a few small ones. I like to get a new game or two that we can all enjoy. We do more for birthdays when we can really honor the child (and it isn't such a financial hit).

Now, if you've stayed with me through this long narrative, here is your reward. The best English Toffee recipe on earth. I've tried a bunch. This beats all.

1 lb. butter
2 Cups sugar
1/2 Cup Karo Syrup
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 Cups Slice Almonds
1 bag Milk Chocolate Chips

Use a heavy pan and a wooden spoon for this recipe. Melt the butter, sugar, salt and syrup together til they start to boil. Add 1 cup of almonds. Continue to cook, stirring constantly til a deep tan color. You'll actually see little puffs of smoke when it's almost done. Drop a little bit in some ice water and if it cracks and falls apart when you taste it, it's done. It shouldn't be even a tiny bit chewy. Pour it onto a well-greased cookie sheet and spread out. Immediately pour the chocolate chips on top and cover with another cookie sheet so they melt. After a few minutes, spread them around and sprinkle with the rest of the almonds that have been chopped very fine. When it's completely cool, break it into bite-size pieces.

I wish you the merriest Christmas ever--your own Christmas. Take the best things from your childhood and add your signature. Whatever you do, it's perfect.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What REALLY Matters?

The Question:

Lately I feel a little overwhelmed by all that motherhood entails. I love spending my days with my boys, and don't need a pep talk about that (right now). But I've been thinking long term, the things I want my kids to do, to know, to feel by the time they leave my home. I want to know that the way I spend my days with them now is not a waste of time. I don't want to just cross my fingers and hope I'm doing it right.

I want to know what things you did as a young mother that you look back and say "that was REALLY worth the effort," and which things you feel were not worth stressing about because they worked themselves out in time or didn't have the results you were looking for.

Maybe what I'm looking for is a list of how you would spend an ideal day with children who are too young for school. With your perspective, and long term results in mind, what things would top your list? And what things didn't really matter?

The Answer:

There are some obvious answers that come to mind--the development of talents, every moment spent infusing our children with faith and testimony, the efforts to build feelings of love and unity. We know that these efforts are tireless but the pay-offs are obvious. Children are so believing and curious. It's a perfect time to teach them truth.

But I want to answer this question in a broader way. Motherhood takes on much more meaning when we stop focusing on every little thing our child is doing and focus instead on who they are becoming. We can make our child do anything we want them to do. They are small and we're big. We can force them to go through the motions of sharing, picking up toys and apologizing (to name a few). But what we're after is the development of real feelings--love, compassion, a keen conscience about honesty, generosity. You get the idea--true inward feelings that lead to sincere actions. This is not accomplished in a day. It involves a way of parenting that respects and nurtures a child and allows him to act rather than always being acted upon.

I really believe that this nurture begins right at birth as we quickly respond to a baby's needs. In the first year, we build a bond of security. This demands a lot of a mother. But science shows that during that first year, the side of the brain which controls feelings and conscience is being developed.

Enough about that. Hopefully, a child emerges from the first year with a "loved brain" After that, we use everyday activities as tools to teach--not punish. We take the time to show them how to do things. We don't have to invent a lot of special projects. Our lives abound with them. We show them how to sort the silverware, carry a plate of food carefully, fold a towel, flip a pancake. We look them right in the eye and connect through the day. We keep life simple. This daily routine of living life and teaching allows us to really know our children individually. When we are in a constant pattern of scolding and forcing, we feel bad, they feel bad and they aren't progressing. We need to be in a mode of loving and teaching.


I believe in vast amounts of physical contact. Cuddle in a blanket and read stories. Give big squeezes. I would turn into a "mean old witch" some times, gradually transforming and begging my children to give me hugs to halt the process. Everyone would come racing over with hugs to restore me back to "mom". Just stop everything you're doing from time to time and give kisses and hugs and tell them three things you just love about them.

My mother's favorite piece of advice was "let them see the love light in your eyes". Just look right into their eyes and think "I love you" without saying it. They feel it entirely.

Keep in mind that when you look at children with disgust or even disappointment, their irrational minds wonder if you love them. Keep those looks to a minimum.

Pretend you're talking to someone on the phone when your child is near you and tell the pretend person how much you love the child and all about the nice things they have done that day.


Family home evenings and scripture study are so collectively powerful that I would try to never miss them. Make the gospel pleasant and fun and teach them what a treasure the scriptures are. Hold them with awe. Let your children see you reading them even for a few minutes every day. They'll catch on to the fact that they are kind of like food--a necessity of life.

Talk to them often about Jesus--all the things he has given us, how much he loves us, how he helps us. Build faith in him.

Teach them to repent. When they make mistakes, our first impulse is to punish them or separate ourselves from them by having a time-out. Sometimes that's ok. But we need to take the time to explain simply what they have done and what the results were. How can we repair this? How can we make our brother happy? How will you clean this up? I could honestly address this for a few pages. How we deal with their mistakes is right at the core of developing their conscience. The more loving we are, the less shaming we are, the more free they will be to feel their own feelings of sorrow for what they have done.

I know this may not seem to answer the question. The basic daily routine that became most effective for me was to make sure my children were fed well and got the rest they needed (I can identify a tired child in two seconds) and then to apply these principles to our everyday life--wherever we were, whatever we did.

Looking back over my long career as a parent, my only regrets are the times that I wasn't loving enough. I never think, "Why, oh why, did I get up in the night with that baby? Why didn't I spank my children? Why wasn't I harder on her?"

I have to end with a little story. Eric, as you know, is an outstanding father of two and my second son. A few months ago, he called me up and asked me out to lunch. He was so cute and fun to be with. As we ate our mexican food, he told me that he was just remembering a time when he was a kid and we had had a little falling out before school. He can't remember what it was about but he knew I wasn't happy with him and he knew he deserved my displeasure. Well apparently, a couple of hours into school, I showed up at his classroom door and took him out of class. We went to lunch and I told him that I was so sorry to have let him leave that way and how great he was. I share this story, not to say that I was an outstanding mother. I just find it increcible that after more than 20 years, that gesture of love has stayed with Eric. Maybe it was the shock of seeing my face at his classroom door! Or maybe it was the fact that I gave him more love than he felt he deserved. Certainly, that's what the Lord does for us.

Each day presents us with new challenges but when we are guided by vision and principles, they don't seem so daunting.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Original Question

The Question:
You know the most about motherhood of anyone I know and you give me snippets of your wisdom as I ask for it, beg for it, or stand in obvious need of it. I am lucky to have you and I know it.

But I think it only fair that you use your wisdom and writing ability to create this little blog with me. I want it for my children and theirs. I will ask you one question each week. You can take a week to answer. Your answer can be a paragraph or a novel (I prefer the novel, I think). All I ask is that you go along with this for a little while, indulge me.

I think the world could use your advice, I know I do.

So, what do you say? Are you in?


The Answer:
I think this says a lot for you Natalie. Most people, by the time they leave home and are firmly established in their own lives, are pretty much finished with advice from their parents. It never ceases to amaze me how open you are to suggestions--what a teachable mother you are. I'm not the "Sage of Motherhood" (where I assume all questions will be focused) but I've loved the challenge of it. I love stepping back from the moment and seeing the bigger picture. I love children. So...sure!