The Bigger the Better

Peeking into Other Families’ Lives

On the recommendation of a friend, I read Ten Circles on the Pond by Virginia Tranel. It’s the memoir of a Catholic mother who raised ten children. I found the book interesting — an honest peek into someone else’s busy household. By no means did I agree with everything, but I enjoyed the honest sharing of the author. This led me to a rabbit trail of “big family” stories. My children listened to Cheaper by the Dozen read aloud. They enjoyed a DVD of the original movie, but not nearly as much as they enjoyed Yours, Mine and Ours. Meanwhile, I had another book to read while I waited to pick up at ballet and soccer and baseball. I read Good Families Don’t Just Happen by Joe and Cathy Garcia-Prats.

Prior to this Lent, it had been many years since I read a parenting book. I was too busy parenting to read about it, and I have my own, very well-defined ideas about what constitutes good parents. All those ideas are in Good Families Don’t Just Happen. It is subtitled: What We Learned Raising Our Ten Sons and How It Can Work for You and I found myself nodding and smiling in agreement quite often. The authors have built their family on faith, mutual respect, discipline and a positive attitude. They write: “We begin disciplining when they are young, and we are consistent, loving and fair. We talk, listen and empathize with our sons. We prevent and avoid potential problems, and we implement consequences for the behavior…. We teach our sons right from the beginning what is appropriate and acceptable behavior, imparting our values and morals as we discipline. We are gentle, firm, loving, consistent and constructive in our approach.” They are doing everything right and it’s working beautifully for them.

Those Nagging Thoughts of Doubt

It is with their success that I struggled. In the Garcia-Prats family, the older boys do the dishes willingly and cheerfully every evening because they have such fond memories of bath and story time that they want their younger brothers to have the same. If they do the dishes, Mom is able to care for the little ones. In the Garcia-Prats family, a family of ten boys, mind you, the authors write that “At home, they would play together for hours without a disagreement…in nineteen years, we can remember only one time [our sons] had a physical fight — and they were more devastated by the incident than we were.” I found myself wondering what the definition of a physical fight was. Did it have to draw blood to qualify as a physical fight? Did they need to require medial care? I have a child who throws his elbows in his sleep, it’s so much a part of his nature. His two older brothers have been known to remind him not to do that. They do not remind him gently.

When I finished Ten Circles, I hoped I’d have a few more children; I was encouraged and warmed by the author’s musings, even though she certainly did not “have it all figured out” and she was over seventy! When I finished Good Families, I felt overwhelmed by the children I have. The perfectionist in me read the book and was discouraged. If I agreed with all the principles, but my children were less cooperative, less respectful, less cheerful than theirs, I must not be doing this job as well as they. Perhaps the problem in this household was that I am not always “gentle, firm, loving, consistent and constructive” in my approach. Perhaps my children are not perfect because I am not perfect. By the time I reached the end of the book, a brutal self-examination had begun.

Then, I remembered why I had stopped reading parenting books: most of them put the best spin on everything. They are written to inspire the parent to the very best. This book is no exception. Within its covers is the very best parenting philosophy. I agreed with everything. The only difference between the author and me, on paper, was that her children are in parochial schools and mine are homeschooled (and believe me, I gave that difference a lot of thought). But the day-to-day living of my life doesn’t have the same shine. Or does it? My children don’t do the dishes as willingly as hers and they have been known to trip, kick, or throw an elbow. But would I write about it? Maybe. Maybe not.

Holy Encouragement

There is no way to capture in 250 pages the challenges of daily life with many children. Do you share your successes so as to prove that this can be done? Or do you share the times you have thrown yourself, exhausted, weeping and pregnant, across your bed because a lovingly nurtured teenager acted so ungrateful that you wondered why in the world you were even thinking about starting all over again with a new baby? Probably, you share more of the first and less of the second. You offer hope and encouragement and just enough of the struggle to make a connection.

When I finished Good Families, I was hungry for more. I had as many questions about the inner workings of the Garcia-Prats household as I had answers. I went to the Internet and “googled” “large families.” The first hit was an unexpected word of encouragement in a familiar voice, a reassurance that my lenten journey was indeed inspired by the Holy Spirit.

It appears that the theme for this year’s Lent, according to the Vatican, is “Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me.” The Holy Father writes specifically to Virginia Tranel, Cathy Garcia-Prats, and to me: “Many believers strive faithfully to follow these teachings of the Lord. Here I would mention those parents who willingly take on the responsibility of a large family, mothers and fathers who, rather than considering success in their profession and career as the highest value, make every effort to pass on to their children those human and religious values that give true meaning to life.”

Every family is unique. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Holiness is attained in those families by the willingness to carry the cross, the desire to receive a child in the name of God and to journey to heaven with that child. We will all stumble along the way. We will all have days when the burden is too heavy to bear alone. We will not be perfect on this side of heaven, nor will our children. The stumbling is as much a part of Christian heritage as real moments of parenting joy that remind us that children are His greatest blessing on earth.

Elizabeth Foss is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia. Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home by Elizabeth Foss can be purchased at

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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