Parenting kids with a big age gap

by Gillian Klawansky
Raising kids with a big age gap can be rewarding and can also bring some unique challenges.
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Different rules, earlier exposure to teen behaviour, unique learning opportunities. Raising kids with a big age gap can be rewarding and can also bring some unique challenges. Read on for how to deal with the intricacies of this unique family dynamic and get some tips on how to best deal with it. By Gillian Klawansky.

Toddlers, tweens and teens. While each age group brings their own nuances to a family, when your children are in a mix of these different life stages and big age gaps, it brings a whole new dimension to parenting.

From focusing on your son’s potty training to helping your daughter navigate her first period – all in the same day – you’d be forgiven for sometimes finding the gap between your children a little mind-boggling.

A question of influence

“There’s going to be this natural education from watching the older sibling,” says Johannesburg-based educational psychologist, Sarah-Jane Lipschitz who’s also the mother of three boys between the ages of 12 and six. “That’s not always such a negative influence, it can in fact, be quite a positive one.” However, as a parent, you’ll have to watch out for what was once a beneficial impact becoming problematic, she cautions.

With a big age gap, the reality is that the younger sibling will likely be exposed to behaviour and topics that they may not otherwise have encountered yet. So says Nadine Malherbe, the mother of two daughters aged 22 and 14. “I was able to shelter my older daughter a bit more because there was no-one else exposing her to things,” she says.

“Yet even though my oldest is not a party animal, if she had friends around growing up, my younger daughter would be a lot more likely to hear things about contraceptives, for example, or to see drunk teenagers. It opened a lot of questions that wouldn’t have otherwise come to mind if she had a sibling closer in age to her.”

That’s why it’s important to build an awareness in both kids about what is and isn’t appropriate, and as a parent, to keep monitoring this. “You need to let both children know that the older sibling needs to be very careful with what he/she does or says in certain instances,” says Lipschitz.

“The younger sibling also has to know that there are things out there that they don’t have to know just yet.” This message applies to the entire family. While your oldest may be ready to chat with you over dinner about just how much of a mess the world is in right now, your youngest may wake you with nightmares later that evening.

Read: Red & Green lights of raising siblings

Different rules for different kids?

It’s important to remain consistent when it comes to setting rules for multiple children. Yet with a big age gap, evolving parenting tools may make instilling exactly the same form of discipline almost impossible. “What I see a lot with these kids is that the oldest always things that they’ve had it worse off,” says Malherbe. “My oldest always gets cross that her sister gets away with so much more than she did when she was her age.”

Yet the youngest also complains that she’s got the short end of the stick. “For example, as technology advances as they grow up, there are more tools for me to monitor my younger daughter’s phone. She says it’s unfair because her sister was never monitored in that way, but the tools simply didn’t exist when she was growing up.”

When it comes to screen time, says Lipshitz, she sets the same limits for all her children. However, if her 12-year-old excels and tries really well at school he does get extra PlayStation time, something that will apply to the younger kids when they get older. They also have different jobs when it comes to taking care of pets, for example, with the oldest child cleaning the litter box and the youngest filling the water bowl due to the developmental skills each job involves.

“It may be child-specific but in my experience, it seems the younger child is more responsible when it comes to learning about himself, his role in the family and about what’s not so good for him,” Lipshitz continues. “Perhaps he’s learned from my interactions with older one, seeing that if he does something naughty like his older brother, this is what will happen to him.”

Lipshitz suggests doing your best to parent all your children in the same way, regardless of their ages. “They should all have the same level of consequences for bad behaviour,” she says. “The parenting role stays the same – firm but loving. They all need to know you’re there to support them, that you’re their cheerleader but they also need to know what boundaries are in place when it comes to bad behaviour.”

Check out: Does birth order really affect your child’s personality

Sibling harmony with an age gap

Lipshitz suggests encouraging the children to interact in a way that creates sibling harmony. “Use the different ages as a teaching and learning opportunity,” she says. For example, encourage the older child to read to the younger child or help them with homework if they’re available to do so.

Playing sport is also a great opportunity to encourage children of different ages to play together and to de-escalate conflict. Or find shared interests or activities that are not age specific to encourage bonding opportunities.

Ultimately, siblings of very different ages learn from each other and are enthusiastic for what lies ahead, says Lipshitz. “My younger ones are excited to grow up because of how their older brother is adjusting to his life. They both look up to him and they think he’s very cool, albeit a bit moody.”

“It’s an amazing thing because it equips the younger sibling with this additional knowledge that’s naturally passed down from the older one. In a family where you have siblings of similar ages, that doesn’t really happen, they face new challenges at the same time. Yet in families with bigger age gaps, everyone sees the different stages.” In this way, they can learn from the older sibling’s experiences.

Check out: 13 tips to prepare your toddler for their new sibling

One mom’s experience

By Antonella Desi

“Was he a laat lammetjie?” or “Do they have the same dad?” are two common questions I get asked regularly. Unlike most of my friends who planned for an average of a two- to three-year age gap between their kids, it didn’t turn out that way for me due to fertility issues.

Instead, I ended up with a seven-year age gap between my two beautiful sons. At the time, I was so focused on falling pregnant, that I didn’t really give it much thought. However, looking back, I now understand that a large age gap does come with its own unique set of pros and cons – here is what I have learned on my parenting journey so far:

The benefits…

  • Help on hand: One of the great advantages of having children with significant age gaps is the potential for your older child to help with their younger sibling. 

The elder one can help take care of their younger siblings by feeding and changing them, and when they get older, by offering babysitting, tutoring, and driving services. Of course, this is very helpful in managing the family’s daily responsibilities, but it also helps foster a closer bond between the siblings. 

  • Take a break: With the constant cycle of feeding, nappy changes, naps, and sleepless nights, raising children can be demanding. However, bigger age gaps can offer a welcome breather that can leave you feeling ready for the challenges a new baby will bring.
  • Reduced rivalry: When siblings are spaced further apart, they’re less likely to feel competitive. With different schools, friends, and developmental stages, they have less in common to compete over. While this isn’t always the case, widely spaced siblings often have fewer conflicts over parental attention. 
  • Individual attention: When kids are born close together, offering them both individual attention can feel like an impossibility. However, spacing them out offers the freedom to bond one-on-one. Play with the younger one while the older one’s at school or focus on the older child during baby’s nap time. 
  • Lessons learned: Having your older child participate in childcare teaches them leadership and responsibility. It also helps them better understand the choices you make as a parent. And the younger child’s EQ and street-smarts will benefit from having their older sibling as their “mentor”.

Visit: 6 proven strategies for managing teen stress

The challenges of a big age gap… 

  • Common interests: Finding activities that cater to both kids can be the toughest challenge of a big age gap. Your little one might be all about playgrounds, while your older child has outgrown them. Even planning a family game night or vacation can be taxing. 

The trick lies in finding activities and people that engage both kids and choosing locales that offer a broad spectrum of things to do. 

  • The never-ending story: Having a big age gap between kids means you get some breathing room between babies, but it also means that it feels like your child-rearing years might never end. Instead of getting the bottles, nappies, and sleepless nights behind you, it can feel like you have doubled-up.
  • Relentless schedules: Balancing the daily routines of children with varied ages and interests can pose a real challenge. Picture this: while your younger one is due for a nap, your older child’s soccer practice beckons.

Plus, they might attend different schools with different schedules and vacation times. Add in varying bedtimes and parental control warnings, and you’ve got a juggling act that can be difficult to keep up with.

Also read: The group dynamic of new siblings

Some tips…

  • Be flexible: Adjusting expectations is key when parenting kids with significant age gaps. Each child’s interests and activities will differ, and trying to force similarities can lead to frustration.

 Flexibility is crucial; coordinating plans and balancing attention may feel challenging, but accepting these differences and adapting will help you navigate parenting with more ease and enjoyment. 

  • Across the ages: There’s a wealth of activities that cater to children with significant age gaps. Museums, science centres, arcades, and amusement parks often offer something for everyone.

Other age-neutral spaces, such as beaches and parks for example, also provide opportunities that can engage kids of varying ages. It is vital to find activities that you can enjoy together as a family: hiking, cycling, playing cards and board games, baking, exercising, and gardening are just some examples.

  • Divide and conquer: While it’s great to find activities suitable for both, there will be times when separate plans are more practical. Occasionally, one child may need to adapt. 

However, if possible, arranging one-on-one time tailored to each child’s interests can be rewarding. These moments create special bonds and allow for unique experiences that benefit both parent and child.

Also read: Sibling Rivalry

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