Managing Several Small Children–When We’re All Together

So far in this series, Courtney has covered working with our kids when her hands are tied, when training on different things/levels, and when they all go out somewhere.  I’ll be discussing today how we handle our whole family doing things together.

When we’re all together, I tend to be the one that herds the cats. This is partially how I see my role as a dad but also just a practical way to let Court take a little step back from what she does all day long. Our time together can be incredibly structured or incredibly free–we like to leave room for both.

Aiming toward the older kids. There are a couple of ways to approach a group of kids who are at different levels. One is the lowest common denominator where you aim for what everyone can do. But, as you might imagine, always going this way would be painfully laborious for the older kids, especially since some of our littles can’t even talk. Another approach is the middle ground approach where you aim for, well, the middle ground. While this is certainly better, it still doesn’t engage the older kids very well. Instead, we tend toward aiming at our oldest kids. This means we play games that work best for the older kids. We read books as a family that are on a higher reading level. It’s been our observation that even though our littles don’t catch everything and they struggle with some of it, they understand more than we expect them to and the effort to keep up is a good challenge for them.

That’s not at all to say that we don’t sometimes go for the low or middle ground. We have times where we all sit on the floor and roll a ball around (which any kid who sits can play) or play a preschool game that is overly simplistic for the olders. Most of the time, though, we’re aiming high. (And maybe sometime I’ll talk about how we put that to work in our church since we meet in a living room.)

Modifying to suit short attention spans. In line with the point above, just because we aim at the oldest certainly doesn’t mean that we literally expect the littles to do everything the olders are doing. We freely modify things for the littles to help them cope with what we’re doing. For instance, say we’re having a conversation with the olders about how Jesus is the Son of God, but also God (this came up the other night). That’s a long and tough conversation…for me. Not to mention any of my kids. So, while we’re trying to discuss this in a way that makes sense to our olders (if that’s even possible), we may allow the littles to get crayons and paper to draw pictures while we talk. On that note, I’ll frequently ask the littles to try to draw what they hear us talking about so they’re still involved. I’m not a fan of letting the littles totally check out–we just simplify.

Giving boundaries. This is probably the most “duh” item on the list, but I put it here for a reason. There’s no such thing as total “free” time in our home. Standard rules certainly always apply, even when we let loose.  That’s what makes games work. With several kids, the whole “let them loose” concept always–always–ends up leading to disaster, usually with someone crying and hurt. So though there are some very free times we have where craziness abounds, we still put up fences to help our kids do well.

At other times, the boundaries are very, very defined. Not only do I not trust kids (or adults) to make totally free and good decisions, I know my kids need to learn about authority and responsibility. There is always authority over them–us, bosses, the law, certainly God. And within that authority lies a responsibility to respect the laws/rules/boundaries around them. Putting these things in place when we’re all together gives us a chance as parents to observe how they do and correct as they go.

Asking guided questions. One of our traditions is talking together at supper, the only meal we pretty consistently have together. Since I’m usually gone throughout the course of the day, I like to use the time to find out how they’re doing.  This usually comes out like “Tell me about your day” or “What was cool about your day?” or “What did you learn about it school?” or “Who did you hit today?”  OK, kidding on the last one, though now that I think about it, that question could get answered almost every day. What’s pretty fun about this is that the kids now frequently compete with me to ask these kinds of questions of each other (and us!) before I get the chance to.  So, basically, the kids playfully fight over asking others about themselves, which is great because they’re learning to put others first.  Of course, that backfires when they actually fight over who gets to ask the question.

In this, I’ve carried over some of what I learned from leading small groups of Christians in opening up.  The questions don’t always have a positive slant to them.  Sometimes they’re “What was really hard about your day?” or “What made you sad today?” or the mixed “Tell me the best part and the worst part about your day.”  Sure, I’m running the risk of openly inviting the kids to complain, but I’m trying to teach them that we’re not a glossed-over family where we only talk about the good stuff. Because there’s sin throughout the world and in us, there will always be difficulties and trials to face. And we’re not going to act like they don’t exist. Instead, we want to face them directly and honestly, even when they’re really young. And then it gives us a chance to talk through those things as a family.

Raising hands. I’m not talking about in the 1 Tim 2:8 way (though we do that sometimes, too) but like the you’re in elementary school and you have a question for the teacher kind of way. Yeah. Not kidding. I was comforted the other day when we were invited over to eat with some friends who have seven kids. During the meal, one of the kids raised her hand to ask if she could be excused. We’re not alone! The thing is, there are a lot of little voices in our house and their volume level falls somewhere between loud and piercing. Not only that, but the size-smallness of our family lends itself toward a bunch of children who a) still like to talk a lot (no sullen teenagers here) and b) haven’t really mastered the social skills of asking questions and listening. So, literally, we raise hands if there’s a question or a comment that someone wants to make.

It’s probably worth noting that even then there are guidelines in our home. Interruptions should be minimal and they should relate to what’s going on. For instance, we even stop raised hand comments about dinosaurs when another child is in the middle of telling about the craft they made that day.

Teaching love for one another. Really, this is the overarching theme of all of what I’ve listed. While I can’t make or teach my kids to love one another, but we can certainly point them in the direction of understanding what loving others looks like. That means watching how the kids interact and instructing them how to handle the different scenarios that arise. “Child A, when Child B takes something from you, you don’t scream and yank it back. Instead, you politely ask them to give you the toy back.” In all of this, we’re trying to show the kids that we put others first all the time, because that’s how the kingdom of Jesus works. Sure, it’s an absolute farce sometimes. But we’re trying to lay the groundwork for palpably putting others before yourself. When we’re all together, there are plenty of opportunities to see this happen in playing games and conversations and sharing and the such. And in the midst of failures to love each other (which abound), we get to point them to Jesus who perfectly loved others–including us!–and showed that most by saving us from our selfishness.