This originally appeared on jewishmom.com.
Sometimes I think I had 12 kids just for the shock value that fact elicits when dropped into casual conversations. At other times, I find myself resentful at being defined by something that is, after all, just a matter of biology: “You know, Varda—that woman with the 12 kids? Yeah. Her.”
It can be kind of nice, at times. Women tend to look at me in amazement and ask me my secrets, as if I were Mother Theresa. The contrarian who resides within wants to respond that fertility is no guarantee of a parenting job well done. That said, I think I have learned a lot about parenting a tribe and I’d like to share some of my favorite tips with you, the reader.
1) Encourage friendships between your children. Sibling rivalry notwithstanding, it is definitely possible for siblings to be friends and this is so important: with a sibling as a friend, one will always have a support system.
My children tend to pair off with the sibling closest in age. These are the children who share their earliest childhood memories of going to the park with mom, or hearing a bedtime story and getting tucked in at one and the same time. Reinforce these bonds by spending time with them as pairs of children. Play games for three, take a nature walk, or make an impromptu picnic in a favorite spot.
2) Give each child his or her due. Children don’t want to be one of many, even if the concept gets them every bit as much attention as it gets their mom. I like the idea of taking just one child out to dinner, once a month, with both parents. It doesn’t have to be a fancy expensive restaurant. The main thing is giving that child your undivided attention. Let your child shine for the evening and revel in her uniqueness.
Also, children want their baby memories. They want to know the special silly names you called them. They want to know their first words. It’s your responsibility to be the archivist and family historian, in order to preserve the egos of your individual children. No excuses.
3) Offer teens an easy way to speak their minds. There is a temptation to organize everything when one has a large family. So I might, for example, note that one of my teens has an issue and want to get right down to the bottom of that problem. As if it’s an item on a to-do list that I can take care of so I can move on to the next thing.
Tackling the issue with your full focus, however, is the surest way to drive a wedge between parent and teen. Better to keep things light and casual. This will make it easier for your teen to open up and talk about what’s bothering him.
Avoiding eye contact, oddly enough, is my favorite tactic here. Instead of asking questions outright while looking my teen in the eye, I may talk to a teen while I’m doing the dishes, my back turned to him. It frees a child to talk about stuff when he doesn’t feel as though he’s under the glare of a giant spotlight.
4) Involve them in good deeds. Think about your child’s special abilities and how these might be put to good use within the community. One of my friends has a child with a rare genetic disorder who needs a great deal of attention. I thought about which of my many children might be able to volunteer to spend time with this child to give the mother a break. I talked to one son and he agreed to give it a try. This turned out to be a long-term project that both benefited my friend and taught my child a great deal about chessed: deeds of loving kindness.
Not every child is suited to work with the disabled, of course. You may need to give it some thought to find the right deed to suit your child. At any rate, I also find it very important to do good deeds within view of my children to serve as an example. You don’t have to point out to your child that you’re doing a mitzvah. It’s enough they see you in action, whether it’s watering a neighbor’s plants while she’s on vacation, calling Kars4Kids car donation charity to donate your car to aid at-risk children, or driving an elderly neighbor to a doctor’s office.
5) Don’t compare. Dear reader, I beg you, don’t compare yourself to other moms such as me on your worst parenting days. Be gentle and remember that we all have off days. Also, consider this: my children didn’t come as a package deal. I got used to them one at a time. Just. Like. You.
Varda Epstein is a mother of 12 children, a blogger, and communications writer at kars4kids.org.