Tom Purcell, 8/6/2007 [Archive]

On Big Families

On Big Families

By Tom Purcell

Some global-warming people are calling on families to have no more than two children -- fewer human beings will reduce our carbon output, you see -- but they got it backwards. The world would be better if more people experienced the family life I knew as a kid.

I was raised the only boy with five sisters, which was both a blessing and a curse. One day when I was 12, the neighborhood bully was roughing me up. I didn't have a brother to teach me to fight; my sisters taught me. I looked him dead in the eye and said, "You are soooooo immature! Get a life!"

I suffered other indignities. My father (the Big Guy) was always looking to stretch a buck. He made me wear hand-me-downs. It wasn't too bad most of the year, but Easter Sunday was humiliating. I had a heck of a time outrunning the neighborhood bully with my pantyhose bunching up on me and my bonnet flopping in the wind.

The Big Guy had it worse than I did. Until we added onto the house in 1974, we had only one full bath. The Big Guy never could get in there. He spent much of his adult life sitting on the edge of his bed in his robe waiting for one of my sisters to come out.

As soon as he'd hear the bathroom door open, he'd race down the hall -- only to hear it slam shut again, another of my sisters locking herself inside for 30 minutes or more.

The Purcell house was a place of great drama over the years. This is the natural course when so many people live together under one roof -- and when the males are heavily outnumbered by the females.

"For goodness sakes, Betty," the Big Guy frequently complained to Mother after saying something that caused one of my sisters to erupt, "if I have one more door slammed in my face ..."

But just as often, we'd sit around the dinner table laughing our heads off, sharing stories about something one of us had done. I was a frequent target of the laughter. The girls loved to tell stories about their stinky, sweaty, mud-caked brother.

It's amazing to me that I'm 45 already and that my sisters are between 50 and 35. But when we get together, we laugh long and hard about the thousands of experiences we shared growing up.

We laugh because it's clear now how much we were loved and how all of us helped shape each other -- our sense of humor, our values, our hopeful outlook. It's no wonder that our positive experiences are the reason we're all doing well in life now.

One of the great tragedies of our time is that so few people are experiencing family life as my sisters and I got to. Fewer kids have brothers and sisters to enjoy, and what good is childhood if you can't annoy your siblings?

What's worse is that fewer adults are enjoying the blessings my parents knew so well. A report from the National Marriage Project found that more Americans are postponing marriage and having fewer children. One of America's fastest-growing demographics is that of single adults living alone.

I never met anybody who wished he or she had fewer brothers and sisters. And I know too many people in their 30s and 40s, particularly in progressive metro areas, who dream of marrying and having a family, but have no idea how to make it happen. I'm as guilty as anyone.

In any event, we ought to do whatever we can to reduce pollution and carbon output, but limiting family size to two kids would do just as much harm as good. Big families are beneficial to society in too many ways.

Being a member of such a family taught me resourcefulness, for instance. When my sisters caused me too much grief, I was forced to devise a clever strategy to make them back off.

I threatened to use their toothbrushes.

Tom Purcell is a humor columnist nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons. For comments to Tom, please email him at

RESTRICTIONS: 'Tom Purcell's column may not be reprinted in general circulation print media in Pennsylvania's Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, and Westmoreland Counties. It may appear only in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and its sister publications."

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