As the oldest of 11 children, I learned early on just how much time, energy, organization—and love—it takes to keep a household humming. My own mother ran a tight ship, but she always made my brothers, sisters, and me feel cherished.
My husband, Steve, is the fifth of 14 kids, and he, too, recalls the fun of having your best friends live under the same roof—and having to do lots of chores to help out his folks. Today, he's as close to his siblings as I am to mine.
With just six kids of our own, our family seems small in comparison, but I find myself relying on many of my mom's shortcuts and strategies to make life a little easier. Here, some tips, from my family and other supersize ones, that can help you, no matter the size of your clan.
Rosemary Black is an editor at the New York Daily News and author of The Kids' Holiday Baking Book.
Getting Kids to Pitch In
1. Chart the chores.
As a mom of eight, ages 7 months to 11 years, Beth Jones of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, has an incentive to make sure everyone helps out. She posts a job chart on the fridge every week, and even 2-year-old Andrew gets in on the act: His duties include lining up his shoes on his shoe shelf and putting his dirty clothes in the hamper in his parents' room. Three-year-old Sam empties the small kitchen laundry basket of soiled dish towels into the big bin upstairs and uses a hand broom and dustpan to spot-clean the floor in the hall and the dining room. The older kids vacuum, clean toilets, and keep their own rooms neat. And everyone knows the day's assignment has to be finished before they sit down to dinner. "It takes some effort to teach the kids what to do when they're little, but it makes them feel that they're part of the team, and it'll definitely save you time in the long run," says Jones.
Your children can't really be self-sufficient if they can't reach the things they need, so place everything from bath towels to dust rags where they can get to them without your help (the exception, of course: chemical cleaners).
3. To each his own.
Assign every child a cubby or shelf in your laundry room. Laurie Leach of Tannersville, New York, has clean clothes go straight into the cubbies, and each of her five kids, ages 6 to 16, is responsible for putting his own away. A trick I learned from my mom: Buy a set of permanent markers, designate one color for each of your children, and then make a small mark on all of their clothing—on the tag or inside a rim—so you quickly know which shirt or pair of pants belongs to whom. You can also have each child put his dirty socks into a netted lingerie bag so they come out of the wash presorted.
4. Make cleanup part of the bedtime routine.
Ten or so minutes spent straightening up each evening keeps messes from getting out of hand. Cathy Severance, a mom of five, ages 5 months to 7 years, in Woodridge, Illinois, keeps a small wagon in the family room that even her 2-year-old, Justin, can pull around and load up with toys.
Curbing Sibling Rivalry
1. Institute a no-fault clause.
When Joe McCormack of Naperville, Illinois, catches any of his five kids, ages 18 months to 8 years, bickering, he separates them without trying to find out who did what: "I just tell them, 'You aren't playing well together, so you need to be apart for a while.'"
2. Discourage tattling.
Although my kids know they can come to me for anything, I don't respond when they try to spill the beans on a sibling. It just creates resentment. Unless a situation warrants my intervention, I send said offender back to work out the problem on her own.
3. Breed goodwill.
Laurie Coultrip of Kirkwood, Missouri, discovered that her 11 kids, ages 2 to 22, started sharing better after she instituted a weekly family-fun night. Their preferred activity: playing not-too-competitive board games and giggling a lot.
4. Be clear about what's off-limits.
At Beth Jones's house, each child has a few designated shelves on which he can store the things that are most important to him. Each knows not to touch those treasures without permission or else he'll lose privileges.
5. Make everyone feel special.
You'll never be able to give your kids equal amounts of your attention, but you can make sure no one's feeling left out. Gary Kimball, a dad of six in Easton, Pennsylvania, knows his daughters Antonia, 4, and Gabriella, 7, tend to get jealous of each other. "So I'm careful not to kiss just one of them if they're both in the room," he says. In my family, we make a point of helping each of our kids discover a talent or an interest, whether coin collecting or sports, that's all her own.
6. Hold summit meetings.
Laurie and Joe Coultrip set aside time once a week to compare calendars and talk about all of their kids—and any special concerns they need to address. You might also invite your children to join in occasionally. It's a good opportunity to do everything from planning summer vacations to airing grievances over who's hogging the bathroom.
Containing the Clutter
1. Keep toys in check.
Cathy Severance organized her kids' playthings into boxes—one with Legos, one with blocks, and so on—and allows a maximum of two in the family room at any given time. (When they can't agree on boxes, they take turns choosing.) It not only keeps the mess under control, but her kids also don't get bored with the toys as quickly, since they don't see them every day. "Plus, we're able to keep track of all of those small pieces now," she says.
2. Install low-hanging hooks.
In or near your coat closet and then lay down the law: All jackets and book bags must be deposited there as soon as a child walks into the house. Severance puts a small bin by the door in wintertime. "The younger ones put their coats in it, and then I'm not constantly having to get them down for them," she says.
3. Pare down.
"We own fewer toys now than when we had just two children," says Beth Jones. "We realized the kids weren't playing with a lot of their things and that many of the toys had lost or broken pieces that made them useless." So she threw out or donated those they rarely touched, and now the family limits what they buy. You might also institute an annual cleanout day, when each child chooses at least three possessions she no longer needs.
4. Use all available space.
Buy laundry baskets or small bins to slide under each child's bed. You can use them for dirty clothes or to store toys and other belongings. Shelves installed near the ceiling are a great place to display collections. Screw eye hooks into a floor-to-ceiling pole and hang all of those seemingly self-multiplying stuffed animals on it.
5. Be a basket case.
Jones gives each of her kids a wicker basket to hold everything they need for schoolwork, from pencils to extra looseleaf paper, so those supplies don't migrate all over the house.
Finding Time for Everyone
1. Establish your own space.
The Kimballs have a house rule: No kids are allowed in bed with them unless someone's sick. It lets them steal a little time together most weekend mornings and every night before they go to sleep.
2. Date him.
Beth and Steve Jones have a standing at-home rendezvous every Friday night. They put their younger kids to bed, park the older ones in front of a video upstairs, then eat and watch a movie together downstairs.
It may not be as personal as snuggling up on the couch, but a few exchanges during the day can help you both feel more connected.
1. Put them on your calendar.
Choose an outing that everyone enjoys—taking a nature walk or going to breakfast—and invite one child to join you in that activity each Saturday or Sunday.
2. Make the most of errands.
When you need to run to the grocery store, ask only one of your kids to come along. It's often during moments like these—when it's just the two of you, but there's no pressure to have a heart-to-heart—that you're likely to get the scoop on school or problems with friends.
3. Divvy up the days.
The McCormacks assign one evening of the week to each of their kids. On that child's day, she gets extra time to talk, read, or do something of her choosing with one of her parents.
4. Go out to lunch.
One of my best tricks: I sign one of my kids out from school during his lunch break so we can eat and hang out together.
1. Relax during naps.
If you're home with your children during the day, try not to do any work at least half of the time they're sleeping. "I felt a little guilty about it at first," says Jones, "but now I don't know what I'd do without that time."
2. Put the kids to bed at a reasonable hour.
In the McCormack house, it's lights out by 8 p.m. so the adults have time to do their own thing—separately or together.
3. Spot your spouse.
Laurie and Joe Coultrip take turns watching the kids so the other can escape from the house—for a few hours or an entire weekend—and enjoy a little time alone.
4. Get up half an hour earlier.
I set my alarm for 5:45 most mornings and head to the gym for 30 minutes on the treadmill. I don't work up much of a sweat, but it's my special time of the day, when I'm free to read a novel, watch TV, or just zone out. Afterward, I feel ready to deal with my life again—as chaotic and wonderful as it is.