When I tell people I grew up with seven brothers and sisters, they’re usually not sure what to say. “Wow, that’s a lot of kids…but that must have been awesome,” is the usual response. And it was. Holidays were guaranteed to be epic and crazy, and we always had enough people to make our own soccer team. There was never enough space in the car for everyone to have a seatbelt, and we never had enough bathrooms. But we found a way to make it work. Growing up in a big family was amazing, and I also learned some important life lessons along the way:
- Focus on experiences, not things
- Traditions and quality time are important
- It’s not just about you
Focus on experiences, not things
I don’t remember a lot of the things I had growing up. Except for the white jeans I had in 8th grade and wore to school on many occasions — but that’s for another post. You won’t find a lot of things in my apartment these days — but what you will find are bedroom walls and a fridge lined with picture after picture of my experiences and adventures.
When you grow up in a family with eight kids, there’s not a lot of extra money to buy things. Shopping at Goodwill, buying used cars, and passing down clothing, school supplies, and sports equipment from sibling to sibling was the norm. My parents wanted us to be well-rounded, so they put us in many sports and activities — swimming, soccer, track & field, gymnastics, and karate. On top of that, we all took piano lessons. After giving back 10%, any extra funds we had were spent on adventures and experiences. Lots of them. I remember visiting the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Yellowstone, White Sands, and Carlsbad Cavern. I remember running across the top of giant trees in Redwood National Forest.
I remember sleeping under a million stars in the Utah desert. I remember hiking snow-capped mountains in Alaska.
I remember scaling cliffs at Big Sur to reach a remote beach. I remember the 3-week road trip across the country that took us from California, to Texas, up to Canada, and then back home again. I also remember sleeping in a hotel just twice during that 3-week trip — the rest of the time it was camping, rest stops, or my dad just driving through the night. I remember freezing in Glacier National Park and heating rocks in the fire and rolling them into our tent to keep warm. And I remember the holes those rocks burned in our tent.
Whenever I go home to see the family, we always reminisce about those childhood experiences. We don’t have very many pictures from any of those adventures — but they’re forever burned in our memories. They not only shaped our family identity and strengthened our bonds, but left us with an insatiable curiosity about the world, an urge to travel and explore, and the desire to learn about new people and places. These adventures shaped my childhood and left me with an important life lesson that has carried over into adulthood:
It’s our experiences — and not things — that leads to a happier and more fulfilled life.
Traditions and quality time are important
Family traditions are important, and we had a lot of them when I was growing up. Whether it was stories and songs before bedtime, family dinner every night and then reading the Bible, pizza and movie night on Fridays, or handmade strawberry short cake for birthdays — the traditions we had in our family provided comfort and consistency, instilled in us the importance of family, and reinforced our faith and family values. In addition, our traditions usually always provided an opportunity for our family to spend uninterrupted, quality time with each other.
I used to eagerly anticipate bedtime as a kid, because I knew it meant stories and songs from my dad. When my brothers Daniel and Jonathan and I were younger, we lived in a tiny apartment in southern California. Some of my first, and most distinct memories are from when Daniel was 5, I was 4, and JJ was 2. Instead of buying us beds, my dad made the three of us a bed out of two-by-fours. But not just any bed — it was a triple bunk bed! We slept in age order, with Daniel on the top bunk, Jonathan on the bottom bunk, and me in the middle. Each night when we went to bed, my dad would come in to tell us stories and sing us songs. He would usually tell us the story of Jack and the Beanstalk or Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or reminisce about his childhood growing up overseas in Indonesia and Venezuela. When we got a bit older, he would read us The Arabian Nights or a Western novel by Louis L’Amour. When he sang us songs, it was usually something from Peter, Paul and Mary like Puff the Magic Dragon or Michael Row the Boat Ashore. He also used to love to sing us I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, or Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. And then we’d always finish up with our bedtime prayer.
There was a certain comfort going to bed each night the same way — with my dad telling stories and singing songs and praying with us. And although I was young, I remember going to bed always feeling safe and happy.
Movie night on Fridays was always my favorite. We’d order pizza (lots of it!) and then huddle around our small tv to watch a movie together. We would alternate who chose the movie each week — when dad and the boys picked, it was usually something like Star Wars, Back to the Future, Top Gun, or Indiana Jones. When mom and the girls picked, it was usually something like Anne of Green Gables or The Sound of Music. In this ever shifting and constantly changing world we live in, there’s something comforting about the simple things in life like pizza and movie night. There was also something about the consistency of it. Through all the difficulties, relocations, and changing times, family movie night was a constant in my entire childhood that I always looked forward to.
Family dinner wasn’t optional when I was growing up. I honestly can’t remember a night where we didn’t eat dinner together as a family. Even with school sports, extracurricular activities, and homework, we always made time to eat together around the same table. With all 10 of us together, it was really more of a gathering every time we sat down at the table. We’d say grace before eating, and then my dad would go around the table asking us about our day. We didn’t have cell phones or tablets or other digital distractions back in those days, so family dinner was an opportunity to get in precious, uninterrupted quality time with one another. It was a time to share stories. It was a time for us to laugh. And it was also a time for my mom to tell my dad if we’d done anything wrong! It’s still one of my favorite parts about going home during the Holidays. All of us sitting together and eating as a group — reminiscing, sharing laughs, and strengthening those bonds that can only happen when you’re sharing a meal around the family table.
It’s not just about you
If you’re not pulling your weight in a big family, someone will call you out on it. We all had daily chores, and if you weren’t assigned a particular task, you contributed and lent a helping hand. As one of the oldest in the family, babysitting, trips to the park, putting the kids to bed, making school lunches, and helping with homework was all expected. Growing up in a big family forced me to put the needs of the family first, and to think about others before myself. And it’s something that has stuck with me ever since.
Growing up in a big family was amazing, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It helped shape my identity and left me with some invaluable life lessons.
A version of this post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Sarah Hutchinson