Sitting here next to me at a vineyard is my friend Colleen. Colleen and her husband have seven children. Yes, they are Catholic. No, they do not home school (two of the most frequent questions she says they are asked).
What she is is an elite long distance runner who I’m pretty sure applies the same “go big or go home” sensibilities to child rearing as she does to racing. I mean, she wore running clothes to the vineyard just in case she could slip out for a quick six mile run! Colleen is as tough yet laid back as they come. And her kids, who range in age from 1 to 15, are all sweet, funny, smart, respectful, and well behaved.
Hanging out with her and her family for a day, I came away feeling like she’s doing something right. Every time I catch myself feeling overwhelmed by the demands of parenting one child, I think of Colleen and her army of seven and I give myself a reality check.
Here, a few of Colleen’s top parenting tips.
1. Accept that you can’t do it all. “All the beds can’t be made and breakfast on the table by 8 a.m.,” she says. ”Some things have to give. Otherwise you go crazy.” The same principle applies to food. ”I can’t obsess over every single thing that goes into their mouths,” she said, as her 1 year old, Lou Lou, licked the center of a Doublestuff Oreo. “Besides, they’re kids. They burn everything they eat anyway.”
2. Physical activity is mandatory. This isn’t a shocker, considering the source, but all kids in this family have to play a sport (once they’re old enough): track, cross country, soccer, football. ”Sports teach time management and leadership skills,” Colleen says. ”They learn about sacrifice, discipline, reward, how to be a team player.” It also channels all that crazy kid energy.
3. Don’t make the older kids do all the work. ”My older three are good about pitching in and helping out with the younger ones but I don’t make them co-parent. It’s not fair. They get resentful.” It’s partially for this reason that Colleen employs two after-school babysittters.
4. Buy Crocs. They’re inexpensive, easy to slip on and off and they last.
5. Travel light. Sounds counterintuitive for a mom of seven to say, but “I see all these parents with one or two children lugging strollers and toys and diaper bags loaded with stuff looking very stressed out and I can’t help thinking, no wonder you’re stressed out. I don’t even use a diaper bag because I end up filling it with unnecessary stuff. If it can’t fit in my purse, I don’t bring it.” She also doesn’t bother with a stroller anymore. “It’s such a headache! I either carry Lou Lou or she walks.” (I should mention Colleen lives in the suburbs; abandoning the stroller is not an option for many urbanites.) She says the only items she keeps permanently stashed in their 15-person van is a case of bottled water and sunscreen.
6. Combine tasks. Colleen gives Lou Lou, 1, Aiman, 3, and Michael, 4, each a popsicle while they share tub time together. ”They eat their dessert, get all sticky, then I rinse them off in the shower. And they look forward to bath time because of the popsicle. It’s a two in one.”
7. Make “mom time” sacred. ”I run everyday and I never bring the stroller. Running is my time. It’s the one thing I don’t share.”
8. Enforce and stagger bedtimes. Lou Lou goes to bed by 6:30, Michael and Aiman go down by 7 and nine year old Liv is in bed by eight, no exceptions. ”That way, I can help the older kids with their homework with less distractions.”
9. No food after bedtime. ”This rule kicks in while they’re still babies. Why do I want to train little ones to be hungry at night? I’d never sleep again!”
10. No mobile devices allowed at bedtime. Older kids Lily, 15, and Laura Lys, 14, are required to turn over their iPhones before retiring for the evening. “Otherwise, they’ll be texting at 3:30 a.m. No good can come from texting at 3:30 a.m.”
11. Embrace the insanity. This one kinda goes without saying. In fact, Colleen didn’t even say it. It came to me after I took a group photo of all the siblings and overheard a child’s voice say to a sibling, “Hey, whose finger is in my butt?”
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