UpClose with Michelle Duggar:
Planning for Serene Chaos
by Melissa Caddell
Talking with Michelle Duggar was both like and unlike having a conversation with any other mom.
She was on her way to a well-child visit for her youngest. We were interrupted by her giving instructions to the driver and then trying to determine which exit was the best choice for lunch. I was struck by how quietly her kids were talking and playing in the background. But the biggest difference I found was that this mom has a lot of experience — and I do mean a lot. Combining her 19 children’s ages gives her 245 years of hands-on mom training!
The Duggar family is featured on TLC’s reality TV show “19 and Counting” (which airs on Tuesdays and is now in its fifth season). This past summer, she and husband, Jim Bob, released their second book, A Love That Multiplies. Here’s a peek into our chat, including answers to reader questions from the MOPS Facebook page.
Family photo: Michelle Duggar and her husband, Jim Bob,
along with their 19 kids, plus their daughter-in-law
and granddaughter. All of their kids’ names begin with “J.”
How do you keep your household running smoothly? There is usually a planned schedule, but there’s the plan … and then there’s reality. Our home is usually abuzz with what I call serene chaos. Most days do pass happily, busily, and if all goes well, productively. In the midst of this chaos, every child knows what is expected of them and everyone helps out (even the toddlers), practicing a “learning by doing” philosophy and building a strong sense of family. I don’t strive for perfection — either from myself or my children.
What does flexibility look like in your mothering?
Flexibility is a character trait we moms end up developing, especially when our kids become toddlers. We have to set a schedule for our family, but there are so many challenges daily that you just can’t plan for. We mommas can be very hard on ourselves because we don’t measure up to our goals and our schedules, but we can’t take it personally! The stops and the starts of my “to-do” list are the most important — my children!
When I wonder what I have actually accomplished, I remember that I’ve spent time in conversation and snuggling and doing all the stuff that takes so much time and energy and teaches me flexibility. We have a schedule, we have a routine, but some days it’s just emergency mode.
What do you do to help your kids get along so well?
Early on, I felt like a referee most of the time! When I had six children who were under the age of 5, there was a lot of arguing and tattling and whining. I felt like all I was doing was yelling all day. One day when I was struggling with how to deal with this, God reminded me of conflict resolution instructions in the Bible from Matthew 18 that talks about going to our brother with a problem, not Mommy and Daddy. That became our model for how we try to relate to each other.
How did you teach them this model?
I sat them all down one day, with the little ones in their highchairs, and I told them that this is how we were going to deal with tattling: 1) You are going to talk sweet to your brother or sister and be kind to them. Instead of running to Mommy, you are going to say, “I had that toy first, can I please have it back? In five minutes, you can have a turn.” And they set a timer. The goal of their heart should not be to get their sibling in trouble. 2) If the sibling won’t give the toy back, then the child can go talk to Mommy, and then I will have a talk with that sibling.
Did it take a long time for them to learn this principle?
When we first started, they wouldn’t talk sweet. They’d have an angry attitude. I’d stop them and say, “You’re not talking nice to me, did you talk nice to your brother or sister?” I would correct them first and then have them go back to their sibling.
One or two times was all it took. I was amazed that my 4- and 5-year-old could get along! We learn to honor and respect each other this way. As parents, we don’t allow them to talk hatefully to each other or to call each other names. We correct it right then and they have to ask for forgiveness.
How do you foster an attitude of “with us” not “against us” between your children?
From the time they are very young, I appeal to their conscience. I try to help them feel what their brother or sister is feeling with questions such as, “How would you feel if someone broke your toy? How do you think your brother feels?” I really try and put them in their sibling’s shoes when they are selfish, do something not nice or try to get someone in trouble. And then they have to make the situation right.
One of my younger girls ate a special treat that an older brother had been saving. I really put her in her brother’s shoes and pulled on her conscience. And she knew she had to apologize and replace the treat. When she did, her brother was sweet and refused to take her treat. But I encouraged him to take the treat so she had the consequence. They learn to treat each other the way they want to be treated.
How did you learn to speak softly to your children, even when you’re angry?
(Laughs) I haven’t mastered this one yet. Just the other day, several of my boys made a mess in the living room. It was just normal kid stuff, but I got angry and overreacted to the mess.
But I feel that by God’s grace, he is giving me some success over yelling. I remember praying specifically about this years ago and God bringing to mind the verse about a soft answer turning away wrath. When I feel frustration building up, that’s when I need to choose to cry out to God and pray that I don’t lose it. There are times I have to whisper to myself, “I’m not going to lose it. I am going to stay calm.”
Do your kids see you struggle?
When my boys made the mess in the living room, I didn’t have the right response. All I could see was a big mess on the carpet, and someone needed to clean it up! I was barking this at my boys as they stood there. My 7-year-old didn’t obey me quickly so I sent him to my room to talk to him. He was near tears as he struggled to talk to me. But what he was trying to tell me was that I was getting angry.
My husband and I have given our children permission to tell us when we’re getting angry. They put their hand on our arm and tell us sweetly and respectfully, “Momma, I think you’re getting angry.” They need to do so in a loving way and without an attitude. It’s very humbling and brings about quick repentance. In this instance both my son and I were crying! The saddest part, was that I wasn’t able to talk to the other children before they were in bed. It hung heavy on all our hearts until morning when I asked for their forgiveness for not having a right response and for getting angry.
I can feel myself rebelling at the idea of letting my kids call me on my anger!
Our anger as a parent can be a wall that comes between us and our children. Anger is such a destroyer. I didn’t know I had a problem with anger until I had children! (Laughs) We tell our children that they have a safe place to share their heart. That we love them and will pray with them and we aren’t going to look down on them or reject them. It is so incredible that we can choose our response! The most helpful thing for me personally is choosing to have a soft voice when I respond.
How do you take care of yourself?
What I really need to re-fuel is alone time with the Lord — though it’s usually not alone as I’m often pregnant or nursing a baby! But I get my second wind late at night, after the kids are in bed. I have some time with my husband and then I read my Bible, devotion or listen to a message.
I love my time in the evenings — no children who need me, no phone calls, no one knocking on the door. And I can continue my quiet time for as long as I want. I try to get to bed around midnight so I can get up most mornings to exercise before 6 on an elliptical machine. I also text with a friend early in the morning to encourage and pray for each other. It‘s a great time for me.
How do you take care of your marriage?
It’s so important to show your kids that you love your husband, even in little ways throughout the day. I love to hold his hand. The kids see that I love him by staying connected to him and communicating throughout the day. When he gets home, they see us be affectionate and sit beside each other. They see that we enjoy each other. We never put each other down and we don’t argue in front of the children. They see that we are there for each others’ best interests and that we are each other’s best friend.
What do you do to keep a tone of peace in your home?
I try to build in quiet, peaceful time into our day. We teach our little ones as babies to stay on a blanket on the floor for a few minutes at a time so they learn that they do have the self-control to sit still. I play a CD of harp music that’s very peaceful. When you have that many little ones, you all need to have a time of peace!
OK, but what about with wiggly 5-year-olds and all of those boys?
Sometimes I just have them run off that busy, rambunctious energy! The key is to head it off before they’re about to get into trouble. I try to give them a constructive task to burn off the energy, like picking up the trash in the backyard. I set a timer and tell them to pick up as much as they can. Everything is more fun to kids with a timer, and I use it a lot. Sometimes they just run laps around the house.
Having the TV on as background noise, adds to a feeling of chaos. We have very limited TV time, and I don’t use the TV to occupy my kids — I’ve learned to get them working beside me. Don’t think that you always need to keep your children away from you so you can get work done. They are good helpers! Children need to know they are a part of a family and that they are needed.
Do you have one-on-one time with each child?
I try to take one kid at a time on errands. I make a point to ask how he or she is doing and ask specific questions. Homeschooling has helped — we spend 24/7 together. I work on school with them one-on-one and have ample chances to encourage them to open up. I have them pray after our time together so I get a sense of their heart. I am always asking them questions about their heart, and they know they have a safe place to share.
Melissa Caddell is a writer, speaker and coffee drinker. She and her husband, Casey, are raising three delightful, chatty girls (ages 12, 9 and 4) in the ‘burbs.