Big Families: The More The Merrier

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Donna Smith has two big refrigerator/freezers, four dishwashers and three sets of washing machines and dryers. She’s not running a bed-and-breakfast in her El Dorado Hills home. She and her husband, Monte, are raising a large family: nine kids in all.

There’s Kolby (the oldest at 22), Karson (20), Kiersten (18), Kapri (16), Kanyon (15), Keaton (13), Kallen (11), Kenedi (10) and Kraigon (8).

Whew.

The Smiths are unusual, to say the least. They are what’s known as a megafamily—a family with eight or more kids. It’s a demographic that’s been receiving a lot of attention these days, thanks to Octomom Nadya Suleman, who gave birth earlier this year to eight babies, and TV shows such as “18 Kids and Counting,” “Table for 12” and “Jon & Kate Plus 8.”

How do the Smiths, and other big families in the Sacramento region, manage their large broods? What’s
it like to raise a sports team’s worth of kids in this era of two-kid families?

“We’re just like everyone else,” insists Barb Dana, a South Land Park resident who, with her husband, Matt, has eight kids. “We just have busier lives.”

And how. Every morning after Matt leaves for work, Barb home-schools the seven youngest children: William, 18; Elaine, 16; Charlie, 13; Ben, 11; John, 9; Madeline, 5; and Ellie, 3. (Irene, 20, is off at college.) In the afternoon, she does physical, speech and occupational therapy with two of her youngsters who have special needs—one is autistic, the other has Down syndrome. Then she’s in the car, driving kids to soccer, swim or crew practice. Somehow, she finds the time to make dinner and do seven loads of laundry.

Organization is key. Dana keeps a daily written schedule, broken down into half-hour increments. On weekends, she and her husband cook up eight pounds of ground beef, then divvy it up and freeze it to use later in the week. “I don’t want to fly by the seat of my pants,” she explains. “I have to be efficient.”

Efficiency is a running theme in large families. Smith, an interior designer, says she planned the family’s custom-built, 10,000-square-foot home “so we can work as a family and get things done efficiently.”

The kitchen has two big work islands, allowing kids to help with meal prep and cleanup. The pantry is stocked, floor to ceiling, with enough provisions to last most families six months. (Try 108 rolls of toilet paper.) The children have their own laundry room, with two sets of washers and dryers, plus wicker baskets for each kid’s clean, folded clothes. (Mom and Dad have their own laundry setup in the master bedroom’s walk-in closet.)

Running a big family is a numbers game. Every week, Smith spends about $500 on groceries at Costco. Her refrigerator is packed. Three flats of eggs. Six gallons of milk. Ten pounds of butter. And too many loaves of bread to count.
Between school, soccer practice and doctor’s appointments, life can seem like a never-ending circuit of drop-offs and pickups. One crazy day, Smith recalls, she made 32 separate car trips. “You do what you have to do,” she says, shrugging.

To keep her home running smoothly, Smith devises daily task lists and agendas. Kids make their own beds and school lunches. They take turns doing the laundry. On Saturdays, nobody goes anywhere until the entire family cleans the house from top to bottom. (It’s spotless.) 

And then there are the rules. Tacked to the wall inside the pantry is a list. Speak kindly. Clean up after yourself. Act your age. Keep food in the kitchen. Ask nicely. Share. Love each other.

“This basically is their classroom,” says Smith, explaining the couple’s parenting philosophy. “It’s our job to teach them to be happy, healthy, contributing adults.”

At the Smith house, Sundays are devoted to family. As Mormons, they spend several hours at church, then cook a big meal together. Monday night, there’s a “family home meeting.” Attendance is mandatory. The goal: building character. “We pick one subject, such as integrity,” Smith explains, “and we try to give them the tools they will need in life.”
The most noticeable thing about these local large families is how closely they hew to old-fashioned ideals of family and childrearing. Kids share bedrooms. They do chores. Families eat together and pray together.

Take, for instance, Folsom residents Erick and Julie Pecha and their six children. Erick is a gastroenterologist, Julie a stay-at-home mom. They are raising their kids by the tra-ditional verities: Respect for elders. Hard work. Love of God and family.

The Pechas sit down to dinner together every night. Before they eat, this Catholic family says grace and several “Hail Marys.” After dinner, there’s homework (no TV on weekdays), followed by showers and family prayers. Then, either Erick or Julie reads to the younger children before lights out.    

“That regimentation of family life is important,” says Erick, himself one of six children. “I grew up with that, and kids thrive on it.”

Alot has been written—much of it unflattering—about today’s generation of parents. They spoil their children with electronic toys and designer clothes. They’re “helicopter parents,” hovering protectively over their precious charges. They overschedule their kids, driving them from soccer to music lessons to tutoring sessions and SAT classes.

The Pechas rebel against all this. Erick dismisses it as “the mayhem of suburban over-involvement.” It’s “absolute madness,” he says.

In the Pecha household, everyone has a job. In a typical week, Katerina, 6, sets the table and feeds the family beagle. Josephine, 10, sweeps the floor and takes out the garbage. Gabe, 14, cleans the family cars. Luke, 16, clears the dinner table, loads the dishwasher, scrubs the pots and wipes down the counters. While the family could easily afford to hire a gardener, the boys do all the yard work. “That’s very uncommon in this neighborhood,” says Erick. “But boys need that hard, physical work.”

The two oldest—Brennan, 20, and Camille, 18—don’t have assigned chores; in the Pecha family, kids “age out” when they graduate from high school. Still, Camille cheerfully assists Julie with dinner and helps take care of the younger children. During the summer, when he was home from college, Brennan worked 50 hours a week as a laborer for a local contractor and did volunteer work at a local hospital.

If hard work is valued, so is learning. During the summer, each child gets a reading list of age-appropriate classics. They must read six books, in addition to any reading they have to do for school. Gabe’s reading this past summer included The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Red Badge of Courage and The Count of Monte Cristo. 

he Pechas must be on to something, because their kids seem well adjusted, happy and successful.

(For the record, so do the Smith and Dana kids.) Camille, a National Merit Scholar who recently graduated from St. Francis High School, was accepted to UC Berkeley and Notre Dame; she’s attending University of Dallas on a full scholarship. Brennan, studying at the same university, wants to be a doctor.

What’s it like for the kids in these large families? Brennan Pecha, for one, likes it.

“It’s never lonely,” he says. “I like the noise,” Camille chimes in. Katerina would even like a little brother or sister. “They smell good, don’t they?” says her dad with her smile.

Raising a large family is clearly a lot of work. “But I don’t think there’s anything valuable in this world that’s not a lot of work,” says Julie.