Have you ever read My Antonia, by Willa Cather? Willa Cather is not for everyone. Her stories are slow, quiet, almost without plot, really. She writes about the ordinary, the mundane, but you do walk away from her novels with a deep and abiding love for her characters. Perhaps that’s because we grow to know them so intimately.
Anyway, My Antonia.
Toward the end, the narrator, Jim, returns to his hometown, and he seeks out the Antonia that he had loved. She is married now to a good man, and they have a farm with an orchard she’s very proud of, because he had once worked in an orange grove, and he knows about grafting. Antonia also has a lot of children, and they are a joyful family, delighted with each other, and “of being so many”. It’s this end of the novel that has always really stuck with me, her grown-up family life, her motherhood. When I read it, I had only a few small children. Little did I know how similar to Antonia’s life my own would be.
But I digress.
Antonia invites Jim in for a meal, and he makes note of the way she arranges the children around the table. “The children were seated according to a system; a little one next to an older one, who was to watch over his behaviour and to see that he got his food.” This is a simple line, easy to overlook, but, I tell you, it’s pure genius.
Let’s pull that out of the novel and into real life.
I need to get my large family out the door in the morning. I have several younger children who can’t find shoes, zipper coats, locate library books, climb into the van, buckle their own seat belts, etc. I have several older children who are fairly self-sufficient. I could run myself ragged trying to get all of the younger ones dressed and ready myself, but it saves me a lot of time and stress to have the children paired up so that the oldest is helping the youngest get her shoes on, put on mittens, and buckle car seat straps. The next oldest can help the next youngest and so forth until I have very little to do except check to make sure everything is done properly, which is mostly just a matter of looking.
Since a family is constantly in flux, with new members being added and older ones leaving the nest, the buddy system is constantly in flux, too, but it works really well. I confess to being a little bit proud of how efficiently and thoroughly we are able to accomplish things because of this buddy system. There’s very little stress on a mother this way, and that makes for more joyful outings, which in turn witnesses to the beauty and pleasure of life in a large family to a world that thinks we must be suffering mightily for all of these children.
The buddy system also works at home when it’s time for chores, and you could use it for school, but I don’t. The older children have enough work to do themselves without adding responsibility for little learners, too.
Other intended side-effects may include increased bonding between siblings, increased confidence in both the helpers and the helped, and empathy for mother which may result in stronger friendships when those children are grown.
Also, read My Antonia. It’s really good.