Humans are, hands down, the single most fascinating set of creatures on the planet.
We didn’t plan to have many kids. It just sort of happened. After our fifth child was born, a friend asked my wife how many children she planned to have. She said, “Two.” Yet each of our six kids has been both a joy and an endless source of parenting lessons. Whether you’re considering producing your own mini-platoon, or are merely curious as to how it’s possible for apparently sane adults to cope, I offer here a few insights and one piece of advice: don’t take yourself too seriously, hang on, and enjoy the ride .
How do you handle sickness?
Commercials where the kid has a cold and the parents give him cough syrup and lovingly tuck him into bed are a joke. Nursing numerous children is like playing whack-a-mole. One kid gets over his cold just in time for another to get it. No, they can’t all be sick at once. They must do it sequentially.
What to a normal family would be a three-day cold, to a large family is a month-long affair. When you have a lot of kids, you don’t quarantine the sick ones. You want them to infect each other as quickly as possible, because you need to process all of them before you come down with the bug yourself. You start to thank God for the blessing of acquired immunity that guarantees each kid will only get the disease once.
Then you discover pink eye.
If dealing with a cold is like playing whack-a-mole, dealing with pink eye is like playing a macabre game of telephone. Kid #1 gives it to Kid #2, who gives it to Kid #3. By this time Kid #1 is cured, but Kid #3 has given it to Kid #4. Now Kid #1 has forgotten your repeated warnings about washing his hands and keeping his fingers out of his brother’s eye, and sure enough, Kid #1 has it again. He gives it to Kid #2, and the whole cycle continues. You find yourself praying for a harsh winter so the freezing temperatures can kill off the germs these house creatures have painted on to every surface.
What do you call them?
We spent months selecting a name for our first child, Erika. We thought about how it sounded, what it meant, whether it had a long enough shelf life so it wouldn’t make her sound like an old lady just as she was hitting her college years. Ladies named Mavis, Opal, Inez, and Violet weren’t born 80 years old. They just lost the shelf life lottery.
We were quicker at naming our second child, largely because I am a science fiction freak and my hero, Isaac Asimov, had died just before our son was born. So Isaac it was. Our church friends thought it touching that we named him after the one of the biblical patriarchs. We didn’t have the heart to admit that we named him after a lecherous chemistry professor who wrote wicked sci-fi.
With names come nicknames. At first, you’re proud to tell people your baby’s name. “She’s Ivanka, after my wife’s mother. There’s been one Ivanka in each generation in my wife’s family going back five generations. Our little Ivanka is the sixth of that name.” But that doesn’t last. Where names are concerned, poetry eventually takes a backseat to practicality.
Nature has given toddlers the triple advantage of being quick, quiet, and small enough to fit into tiny spaces. When you want to sleep, they’re louder than a frat house on homecoming night. But when they’re getting into things they shouldn’t, they’re like incontinent ninjas. Sometimes the only way to find them is to follow the smell.
So, with locomotion comes the need to summon the little tykes. And this is where practicality comes in. When you finally put that name to work, you’ll regret not having picked an industrial-strength name like “Bob.” You can keep saying “Bob” until the cows come home. “Bob, where are you?” “Bob, come here!” “Bob, don’t bite the cat!”
But if you picked a poetic name, now is when you’ll regret it. Try repeating “Beatrix” or “Jacinda” ad infinitum. This is why God invented nicknames. The nickname is the name you should have given your kid but were too embarrassed to pick. It takes a while to whittle a flowery name down to something practical. And you can tell how much trouble a kid gets into by how quickly the parents adopt an industrial-strength nickname.
Over the course of three days, our lovely Ivanka became “Vonky,” then “Schpanky,” then “Schpank,” then “Spank,” then “Hank.” Now, Hank is an industrial-strength name. You can shout it all the livelong day, and the last use will be as potent as the first. You can put some serious air pressure behind that opening consonant, and the hard “k” at the end cuts off the sound to an immediate and ominous silence. “Hank” is the air horn of the naming world. “Beatrix” is the kazoo.
But nicknames quickly add up to a lot of words to remember. Our last two kids, Alexander and Benjamin, were born just a year apart. Since we both abhor the nickname Alex, we announced his nickname before we left the hospital. “He shall be known as Xander.” We didn’t like the nickname “Ben.” But since “Jamin” sounded like a reggae stoner, #6 stayed straight-up “Benjamin.”
As they tend to be inseparable, my wife has taken to calling Xander and Benjamin (as a conglomerate), “Xanjamin.” Kind of like Brangelina meets the Brady Bunch. “Xanjamin” exhibits a bit of creative flair, but at three syllables it’s not industrial-strength. Plus, if you want to summon just one of them, you have to go back to either “Xander” or “Benjamin,” which means that you now have three names to deal with instead of merely two. The efficient solution we evolved is to give each of them the same nickname: “Kid.” If we need to refer to one of them, we say, “the kid.” As in, “Tell the kid to take out the trash.” If the wrong one shows up, the other one is, automatically, “the other kid.” As in, “Kid, come here. No, the other kid.”
Last in the telling, though not the lineup, is Simon. Simon is the middle child. You hear about middle-child syndrome, where the poor middle child is ignored because he’s not needy like the teenagers or cute like the babies. Middle children, the story goes, grow up to be meek and unsure of themselves. Middle children stay in the shadows of their more outgoing siblings.
Simon does not have middle-child syndrome. If there is an opposite of middle-child syndrome, that’s what Simon has. Picture George S. Patton as a teenager. On a battlefield. In a tank. That’s Simon. When told that their older brother would be staying at college over the summer, the other children cried. Simon’s response was, “Excellent. That means we all move up in rank.”
What do you learn from having many children?
Humans are, hands down, the single most fascinating set of creatures on the planet. If you want to understand how humans work, just make a few, sit back, and watch them do their thing. But one or two won’t do. To understand humans, you need to observe enough of them so the individual quirks average out and you get to see the commonality in their behaviours. How many are enough? Probably several hundred thousand. As that was outside our budget, we settled for six.
What sorts of insights have we gained into Homo sapiens?
1. Children believe they are inventing the world as they experience it.
The child who, standing in front of you with chocolate all over his hands and face, insists that he most certainly did not eat the cake you left on the counter, believes he has invented lying. Had it occurred to the child that lying was invented about twenty minutes after language itself, he’d suspect that the parent would not only (a) know that lying was possible, but (b) be better at it than the kid, and (c) be able to spot it a mile away.
This belief — that just because they haven’t experienced something before, no one else has either — continues into the teenage years and can even be seen persisting into adulthood. Our teenager who thinks she’s getting away with sneaking out of the house doesn’t consider that her parents are not merely parents. They are also former teenagers who did the same things she is doing. No, she’s not getting away with anything. We’re allowing her to believe she’s getting away with something so she doesn’t up her stealth game and actually succeed in getting away with something.
2. Children believe they are smarter than their parents.
When I was a kid, I was embarrassed that my father couldn’t manage to programme the simplest electronic device. And I don’t mean “programme” in the sense of writing code that instructs the device to perform certain functions. I mean “programme” in the sense of any interaction more complicated than “turn it on.” Here he was, a senior executive at a multinational corporation, and he needed me — teenager — to set the time on his clock radio. If this, I thought, were typical of the caliber of mind populating corporate America, I would be running the country by my eighteenth birthday.
Now that I have teenagers on whom I rely to navigate Netflix, I realise the stark truth. I wasn’t a teenaged mental giant. My father simply had more important things to occupy his mind — things I had no idea even existed, like retirement contributions, mortgage payments, and tire rotations — such that he saw no point in wasting his time with a problem he could much more easily solve by telling his son, “Go fix that flashing thing in my room.”
Children believe they are smarter than their parents because children command nearly 100 percent of the knowledge they perceive to exist. The irony, of course, is that they are so aware of the things they know because the number of things they know is embarrassingly small.
3. Children have a keen but myopic sense of justice.
When you confront a child with the accusation that he has wronged someone, the child becomes a firehose of excuses as to why he is, in fact, not in the wrong. The young child will rely on his weak lying skills. The teenager, who has by this age has learned that he isn’t good at overt lying, turns to lying by omission and burying his accuser in a flood of irrelevance.
But when the child is the one who has been wronged, suddenly the kid becomes the world’s shrewdest prosecutor. The arguments that were so reliable in his defence — packed with misunderstandings, questions of interpretation, and mitigating circumstances — disappear. In their place are ice-cold facts and impeccable logic. In a way, this is heartening. It suggests that the child has no problem comprehending justice. It’s the equality of application that’s lacking.
Why have a bunch of kids?
Children are expensive. They are messy. They are frustrating. They can be selfish and argumentative. They are also immense fun. They are creativity unencumbered by talent. They are slow to judge and quick to forgive. They love not out of reciprocity or personal gain, but because that’s what they do. They are joyful packets of energy that upend your life and wreck your plans in every way possible. They are the most wonderful creatures you will ever have the pleasure to know.
When you reach the end of your life, you will look back on accomplishments that the world has long forgotten and at hard-won money, power, and prestige that have faded into the mists of time. And you will know that the single greatest accomplishment any person can achieve in this life is to populate the world with children who love each other, care for those less fortunate, and walk humbly with their God.