Thursday, March 15, 2012

Because I Said So: Big family can reward with peaceful little society

I wrote both the column and the feature for today's "M" section in The Commercial Appeal. The feature is on the young adult novel "The Hunger Games" and the upcoming release of the film adaptation. I knew very little about the book going into it, but learned a lot about the the characters, the plot, the genre and the folks who read it.

The "Because I Said So" column today is all about siblings, which I knew a lot about going into. I have two sisters and two brothers, I have a house full of little siblings and I grew up in a big family full of aunts and uncles. I've always admired the way these adults were not only brothers and sisters, but great friends as well. This last year has been a trying time for a lot of reasons, and it is in these times when true teamwork and trust, respect and love become evident. It's been inspirational and made me look at my own kids as a unit independent of Kristy and me. The Quartet will become their own team, they already have in many respects, and my hope is that they'll remain close no matter where life and career and family take them. Siblings are our first best friends and should always remain so.

Big family can reward with peaceful little society

What we create with a large family, other than a large mess and a lot of noise, is our own little society within a society. It has its own rules to be broken and its own hierarchy to be either respected or usurped. It has its own ways of operating to ensure that the machinery of family and home run smoothly.

The best way to keep things operating evenly, of course, is for all of the cogs in the machine to work together, for these brothers and sisters to come together and work as a team, all with the same goal of cleaning the kitchen, agreeing on what will be watched on television or simply passing the potatoes down the table at dinner.

When there is discord, factions develop, and strife becomes the norm; war breaks out over an otherwise peaceful land, and no one is happy. Happiness, and quiet, are the overarching goals every day.

I've been reading "The Saturdays" by Elizabeth Enright to my 9-year-old daughter at bedtime. It's the story of the Melendy family with four children that mirror my own -- two boys, two girls -- living in a Manhattan contemporary to the time of the book's first publication in 1941. Lamenting not having enough money to do what each really wants, the siblings agree to pool their weekly allowance (a total of $1.60) and take turns privately doing what each likes on Saturdays. By the end, they realize they don't want to go off on their own for a day, but decide instead that it will be more fun to have their adventures as a group. It's the story of working together for a mutual cause and respecting each others' wants and dreams.

Much of the time, my kids are at each others' throats with the predictable arguments of sibling rivalry. But there are those moments of peace, a cease-fire as welcome as a clean kitchen when I see them come together in small ways as an older one stops what he's doing to help a younger with homework. There have been our own Saturday afternoons when one child will prepare lunch for all of the others. Sometimes, they pass a dish at dinner without being asked. As a parent, it's what we strive for -- siblings getting along as friends. There is nothing more encouraging for a parent than to see your kids, with ages spanning many years, playing together as a cohesive unit. The only thing better is when they're doing so out of earshot.

There are nights when bedtimes have passed that I hear the kids talking until late, and part of me wants to stomp in there with my scary father voice and tell them to be quiet, to go to sleep and that they have to get up early in the morning. But another part knows that they have many years ahead of waking up early, and I just want to join them, to be a part of the secrets kids tell late at night, the inside jokes passed back and forth and plans being made.

I've witnessed recently that in times of difficulty, brothers and sisters working as a team can accomplish great things; they can oil the wheels of their machinery even as that machinery is coming apart. We should learn to lean on each other and teach our children to look to one another for strength and advice and an ear when times are tough.

Siblings are there for us forever, and sometimes it takes a fictional family to remind us of this, but sometimes it takes only looking to the person beside us at the dinner table and asking them to pass the potatoes. 

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

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