- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

A few clues give away what is going on in Geni Hall’s life. There are the nine gallons of milk a week she buys, the 15-seat van she drives and her new washer and dryer duo that can handle a couple dozen big loads of laundry a week.

Geni and Earl Hall of Purcellville, Va., are the parents of nine: Courtney, 19, Ryan, 17, twins Nathan and Jordan, 15, Emily, 14, Adam, 12, Parker, 4, Reagan, 3 and Logan, 15 months.

Mrs. Hall, 40, sums up the experience with a short description: “It’s a blast.”

Jordan shares her view. “There is more going on. I’m never bored. There is always something to do.”

For the Halls’ older children, there is always someone with whom to play or talk. For the younger children, there are a lot of laps to climb into, hugs to get and big people to learn from.

“I thought we would have two children — a girl and boy,” says Mrs. Hall, who home-schools her children. “I came from a big family, and I did not want a big family. But after I had my first, God just knew my heart.”

There definitely is a trade-off with a big family, say Mrs. Hall and several other area parents with similar family structures. What you give up in spontaneity, you gain in structure. What you give up in material goods, you gain in creativity. What you give up in privacy, you gain in education in dealing with others.

Fewer people are opting for a house full of children these days. The 2000 U.S. Census shows that the average family size in America is 1.86 children. In 2000, just about 11 percent of women had four or more children, compared with 36 percent in the 1970s.

Kate and Jerry Hadley of Rockville opted to buck the trend in a big way. The Hadleys are the parents of 10 — Michael, 26, Elizabeth, 24, Cecilia, 23, John, 21, Claire, 20. Peter, 19, Meghan, 16, Timothy, 13, Gregory, 10 and Alex, 8.

The oldest three are college graduates who are working and living on their own. The next three all attend the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. The remaining four are still at home.

“Now I see the benefits,” Mrs. Hadley says. “They are such good friends with each other. The oldest seven went on a rafting trip last summer. It is cool to see their relationships with one another.”

Getting a system

Organization is the key to making a big family work, Mrs. Hadley says. “It doesn’t matter which system you use as long as you have one,” she says.

Mrs. Hadley, 49, long ago made up job charts and assigned each child responsibilities. The oldest child at home traditionally does the grocery shopping (which, of course, includes the need for two carts and writing a big check at the register).

Other children have daily chores, such as emptying the dishwasher, and weekly ones, such as cleaning the bathrooms.

The Hadleys’ system works so well that Mrs. Hadley found she had to call for backup now that more than half the children are away from home.

“About a year ago, I started having a cleaning lady every other week,” she says. “There are too few kids home to help.”

Diane and Don Spinelli are a Springfield couple with seven children: Catherine, 18, (attending college in Florida), Sophie, 15, Bianca, 12, Isabel, 10, Joseph, 7, John Paul, 4 and Mary, 22 months.

Mrs. Spinelli, 49, divides her home into zones, and each child is responsible for that area. That means Joseph can help dust the basement and Sophie does the dishes when she gets home from school. Naturally, the older children help with the younger ones.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Spinelli, a former professional ballerina, gets up about 5:30 a.m. to get enough time to organize, plan meals and get a start on the day.

“You have to have everyone help,” Mrs. Spinelli says. “It is a privilege for them to have all these siblings. I tell them, ‘I could not do this without you all.’”

The Halls also have a system of responsibility. Everyone has a job. Even baby Logan can help unload the dishwasher. The older children have kitchen duty and rotate cooking one meal a day. Dinners are all planned out for the month on a big calendar on the refrigerator.

Courtney makes great chili; Nathan can whip up chicken for 12.

Love and sacrifice

Mrs. Spinelli, who home-schools her younger children, says she hears this from many other moms: “How do you do it?”

“I tell them, ‘I don’t do what you do,’” she says with a laugh.

That means no arranging play dates, driving across town with a traveling basketball team or indulging the whims and wants of one or two children. They are a family of nine in a three-bedroom town house. Space, time and material goods are all a matter of perspective.

“My children go outside and play in the leaves,” she says. “They play with each other.”

Says Mr. Spinelli, a percussionist with the U.S. Marine Band: “It may be the case that one of our daughters has this unbelievable athletic talent that we have not discovered. But my whole feeling has been to make our family family-centered, not peer-centered. We refuse to spend our lives in the car.”

The Halls also set limits on outside activities early. There simply is no way for two parents to be at five soccer games or seven dance recitals at the same time.

“We limit what we do,” Mrs. Hall says. “No one does anything by themselves. We have four Boy Scouts. We played soccer in the past and had five in it at once.”

Still, there is barely a day on the family calendar (across the room from the Halls’ meal calendar) that sits bare. There are various church activities and scouting retreats and haircuts for the boys and groceries to buy.

Now that many of the Hall children are teenagers, they are making more choices but still keeping the family in mind. Mrs. Hall’s oldest two children have jobs at nearby Patrick Henry College, where Mr. Hall is the vice president of operations.

With money in their pockets, family still comes first. Ryan recently bought the family a trampoline; Courtney surprised everyone with a pool table.

The older Hadley children have routinely contributed to a family fund. A quarter of whatever they earned at jobs during high school went into the pot to buy computers and other big-ticket items the whole family could enjoy, Mrs. Hadley says.

In 1997, the Hadleys wanted to take a trip out West. To save up to rent two recreational vehicles, the family mandated no purchased birthday presents or Christmas presents that year.

“Cecilia wrote poems,” Mrs. Hadley says. “Michael made coupons for things like he would drive you somewhere. The younger ones scavenged for toys they no longer played with. It was the best Christmas.”

The Hadleys also have had to sacrifice when it comes to paying for college. “We have gone into debt to pay for education,” says Mrs. Hadley, who recently started working as a part-time makeup artist. Her husband works in sales. “It is the only thing worth going into debt for.”

The Hadleys have paid for parochial school, but the children have been on their own for college. Michael worked four jobs one summer to pay for Villanova University, Mrs. Hadley says.

“Sometimes you wish you could give them more things,” she says, “but they are better in the long run. Giving a sibling is a wonderful thing to a child.”

Seeing individuals

There is no research that shows what is the ideal family size, says Stephen Duncan, professor in the school of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and the father of five.

“I believe what is ideal is whatever you have the means, time, love, support and encouragement for,” he says. For some people, that magic number is two; for others it is six or seven or more.

However, there are a few things big families should keep in mind as they try to find their way, Mr. Duncan says.

He suggests looking at a big family as an organization — holding family council meetings to discuss needs and scheduling concerns, along with what amount of time will be spent as a family.

The Spinellis do just that. Mr. Spinelli’s schedule changes often, so it is important for the couple to sit down weekly and block off when he will be home, when prayer time will be, what outside activities need to be considered, and when the two can spend an hour as a couple.

They work in a weekly date — even if it is just a cup of coffee.

While the family needs to be a unit, Mr. Duncan says, it is also important to consider the strengths, needs and personalities of each child.

“Parents need to study the dispositions of their children,” he says. “Every child needs a parent who is crazy for them and responds to them.”

Mrs. Spinelli says, “Because our family is like a little city, I have to be like a personnel manager. … Everyone is different.”

Mr. Spinelli makes sure he takes each child out individually a few times a year.

Mrs. Hall says her advice to a mother considering a large family would be to “stay in tune with each of them.”

“They are all so different,” she says. “I even have identical twins, and one is serious and the other happy-go-lucky. Every day, I make sure I have time to connect with each of them.”

Even though the older Hall children help care for the younger ones, Mrs. Hall keeps things in check to make sure the teens are not getting cheated.

“I don’t want to overtax the older ones so they don’t enjoy their own childhood,” she says. “I don’t want them to always be changing diapers. I want them to enjoy life.”

The Halls also make sure they have time as a couple. They go out alone every Thursday.

“The key to this family being a success is a solid marriage — and a great wife,” Mr. Hall says. “Unless your wife has a driven desire to nurture a big family, it will be understandably burdensome.”

Some time ago, Mrs. Hadley got some advice from a woman who was the youngest of 15. It wasn’t about saving money on a 25-pound sack of flour or paying for three children in private college at once.

The woman simply said this: “Keep the party going.”

“She said as the youngest, she felt like the party was half over,’” Mrs. Hadley recalls. “So that’s what we’ve tried to do for the younger ones — we’re keeping the party going.”

More info:

Books —

• “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families,” by Stephen R. Covey, Golden Books Publishing, 1998. This book stresses the importance of one-on-one time, as well as family meetings. It can be of use to anyone managing a large family.

• “The Large Family: A Blessing and a Challenge,” by Eugene Diamond, Ignatius Press, 1996. This book details the challenges big families might face.

Online —

• Quiver Full (www.quiverfull.com) is a Christian-based resource for families who accept that children are a gift from God and are prepared to have as many children as God will give them. The site has resources, links and other articles of interest for parents.

• There are discussion boards for parents of large families on Parent Soup (www.parentsoup.com) and ParentsPlace (www.parentsplace.com). Both sites are sponsored by IVillage Inc.

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