Parenting Styles

Just How Far Apart Are Your Kids?

As anyone who has ever existed in the world with nosy family and coworkers can tell you, there’s not much that people won’t express an opinion about when it comes to the various milestones of adulthood. Are you over 23? Well, are you in a relationship? When are you getting married? Married? Well, when are you having kids? Have a kid? Isn’t it about time to give your little one a brother or sister? Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.

One thing that has been super interesting to me over the last 5 years or so, is the varying assumptions that people make when they hear that my kids are 7 years apart. I’ve had people refuse to believe that there’s not a middle child in between them, including oblique references to mythical babies we must have lost (we didn’t). Then there’s the people who ask if our older child is “yours or spouse’s?”, flat-out assuming that he must be the child of one of our mythical first marriages (he’s not). I’ve had folks assume that one of our children was a reluctant (and mythical) oopsie.

I had a friend ask recently about our actual thought process and the pros and cons of having a second kid that is 5+ years younger than our first. I pick 5 as the cutoff in part because that is, in the US, the age where most kids go off to elementary school and where there is likely to be very little scholastic overlap. I’ve also heard people say that a five-year difference is almost like each child being a singleton, which I have my doubts about, although it certainly was enough time for my eldest to have a loooooong period of intense parental focus, which has pros and cons.

About those – on the pro side, there is less immediate competition. The kids are not doing the same things so there’s not the same up-in-each-other’s-business competition thing that you see in closer in age kids. There’s no overlap in friends and attention. No one is killing each other in Minecraft (yet) because the four-year-old isn’t able to play it independently. The tween was old enough at almost-7 that he never really had that must-destroy-sibling-creation thing going on when his sister would build a giant block tower. There’s less room for comparison in school, since even if they went to the same elementary school, teachers leave, etc.Each kid has room to totally be themselves without having to worry about intruding on each other’s space.

Another huge pro is that the elder child is a huge real help. When Mo was wee, he could run fetch a diaper or bring me a glass of water when she wouldn’t let me put her down and he’s old enough to deal with going to bed on his own and making his own lunch if things are falling apart around us. At this point, he can watch his sister for limited times. I can leave them sitting outside with ice cream while I run into the hardware store or run to the bathroom at the park. It is like having a live in babysitter on a very short-term basis.

My kids also really enhance each other – he helps her be brave because she can go do things with him that otherwise we’d have to go with them on. So at a big play-gym sort of thing, he can help her up the ladder rather than one of us having to be right there, so she is hugely independent in a way that a lot of kids her age aren’t ready for. Conversely, she helps him rise to the occasion and helps push him to do things that otherwise he might not try because he doesn’t want to be outclassed by his baby sister. It also helps that my son is a really caring individual – he wants to be part of her world and is happy to come down to her level once in a while.

Another huge benefit for the younger child is that I am SO much more relaxed as a parent. I have a better sense of the fact that everything happens eventually and I don’t sweat milestones and things the way I did the first time around. Mo’s arrival sort of shook up some bad habits I was in with our elder child and I think I’ve become a better parent to him too, overall.

Now, the cons –
You know that whole “less immediate competition” thing? Part of why that works is that my kids are never in the same place at the same time. They will never be in the same school. They will never have coordinating activities. When it comes time to schedule summer camps, it’s going to be a nightmare to find something that will take a 1st grader and an 8th grade at the same location. Vacations have gotten more hairy, since they both want to go different directions and can’t necessarily overlap activities. This is happening more and more as she gets old enough to have her own firm preferences and he has more distinct and independent interests.

Day to-day scheduling can be hard. He wants to go see a movie she is too young for. She wants to go to a fair he will be bored sick at. Sesame Place is totally off the table. I anticipate this getting a lot worse when she starts elementary school next year when her extracurricular activities are actually that and not in-school classes like in pre-school. So if she wants to do soccer and ballet and he wants to do fencing and stage crew, we’re going to have even more separate weekends than we do even now. I do sometimes envy the people I know who have kids closer in age where playdates and activities can overlap.

I do sometimes worry that the necessary differences in parenting a middle schooler vs. a pre-schooler can make it seem like I’m showing favoritism to the younger of my kids sometimes. She needs a different kind of attention than he does. Some of this is personality, but a lot of it is just age. Also, while they don’t fight a lot, when they do, it can be difficult for the older child to really defend themselves, since then he’s picking on a little kid. This is a balance we constantly have to revisit. The adjustment to having to share our focus was really hard for the tween as well – he’d had almost 7 years as an only child and as much as he wanted a sibling, nothing quite prepares a kid for the change an infant brings to a home.

Oh yeah, a whole bunch of rules changed between 2003 and 2010, everything from feeding to basic safety. Having a big age gap is really like starting over – on the one hand you’re super seasoned, on the other hand, we’re supposed to rear face for how long?

All in all, I wouldn’t change a thing, because, duh, my kids are fabulous and wonderful and I love being their mother. There are definitely times where I think, egads, I’m starting elementary school parenthood again?!?! Didn’t we just get out of that stage? Then I walk in on the tween reading a book to his little sister or listening to her chatter on about something and my heart melts. Which is what it’s all about, right?

(Featured image from the author’s personal collection. All rights reserved.)

Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

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  1. Oh, I can so identify with this! When my youngest was born, the oldest was 17 and my middle kiddo was 11. There are no “in-betweensies” between any of them. They’re now 5.5 yrs, almost 17 yrs, and 22.5 yrs, respectively. They get along spectacularly and are all just really terrific young human beans. The eldest was typically very helpful with his little sister, and both of the older kids are extremely helpful with the youngest. Yeah, there’s the downside of different levels of attention (and type), along with different layers of communication with each of them. It’s been an exciting ride. Sometimes, the quizzical facial expressions of other people when they learn my kids’ ages is amusing to me, but most of the time I just ignore it because I’m so used to it. Sure, the kids are from different marriages, but the “half” sibling thing doesn’t really fly in our household…not because my husband & I don’t “allow” it (it’s not as though the kids don’t know), it’s more that the kids themselves see themselves simply as *siblings* — that’s it. I had to laugh at the “when they DO fight” — my daughter has to be reminded on occasion, “your little brother is only 5” and I had to teach her ways to fend him off when he’s in his (very rare) confrontational mode, while likewise working with him to use his language skills to convey his anger/frustration/whatever it happens to be. My experience as a parent, spanning almost 23 years now, is full of different layers of perspective. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if my kids were “stepping stones” (not to mention, being finished all at one time…it’s trippy when one realizes that one can be a parent her entire life after the first child, but that after the 3rd child is born, one will be in *mom mode* for 35 years). But I wouldn’t change a thing. 🙂

  2. I’m 32, my sisters are 29 and 27. My wife is 32 (6 days older), her sisters are 34 and 28, and her brother is 23. Our son is 8.5 months, and we’re talking about trying for a sibling starting around the end of the summer.

  3. I once read the question is are you good at long distance runs or do you prefer the short one jumping hurdles?
    Mine are close in age, 2 years and 3 months. This is partly due to the fact that I took a break from college for having kids and spacing them more would have meant an even larger break. Yes I DO plan to graduate before I’m 40.
    The advantages are the ones you menitioned: They can really play together great, for a year they went to the same daycare, they’ll be in primary school together for a year and as a family we can now do things that are actually interesting for all (youngest is 5 years old). I would not want to start all over again with diapers and no fancy restaurants because of a baby/toddler. I’m so over that stage.
    Movies are easier to compromise. I can live with the little one seeing one that’s PG6 and the other ones don’t bore the older to death.
    Disadvantages: Oh yes, they fight. They fight like mad. They fight over the favourite food of an imaginary animal (though I’ve grown quite attached to Poffly. He’s a nice chap). They compete and the older one isn’t quite at the stage where she takes her sister’s age into account.
    My sister and I were 5.5 years apart and I would have liked to see more of her as a kid. She would probably have liked to see less of me. Being 14 with an 8-9 yo sister must be horrible. She also moved out early. But we grew much closer again now as adults.
    My husband and his brother are 11 years apart and in their case the brother really didn’t have a sibling but an additional parent who pampered him (he’s the most spoiled entitled brat of all spoiled brats).

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