A few generations ago, families typically had several children spaced 2 to 3 years apart. These days, parents have more flexibility in their family planning. Wider gaps in child spacing are now more common for a variety of reasons.
Benefits of Wide Age Gap between Children
There are several benefits to wide age gaps between children. Parents can give children more individualized attention. They may also have more time and energy. Wide age gaps can reduce competitiveness between siblings and encourage closer – if different – relationships. Wide age gaps may also reduce the financial stress associated with big expenses, e.g., child care, braces, or college tuition.
Challenges of Raising Children with a Large Age Gap
On the other hand, families with wide age gaps face some unique challenges. Depending on the size of the age gap, parents may struggle to accommodate different developmental needs and interests. The infancy and toddler years can be especially challenging as parents try to maintain energy reserves to deal with teething, toilet learning, and nighttime feedings, along with after school activities, play dates, and homework.
Tips for Dealing with a Large Family Age Gap
- Be flexible. One of the most challenging aspects of having children with a wide age gap is managing their separate needs, interests, and activities. Your toddler still needs a nap, for example, while your older child needs a ride to soccer practice. Accept that it’s not going to be perfect, e.g., there may be times when your toddler naps in the car. At the same time, ask your partner, extended family, and friends for help.
- Plan a variety of activities. Planning family vacations, choosing a movie, or even going on a Saturday hike become more challenging when you have a wide age gap. Your teen probably won't have quite the same enthusiasm for visiting LegoLand or watching Frozen as your younger child. Choose activities and vacations that appeal to a wide demographic, such as a beach destination or a trip to a science museum. Keep a flexible attitude and be prepared to adapt and change activities. For example, an older child can handle a much longer hike than young children. Split up, ending the hike earlier for the younger children while allowing older children to forge on. This approach means that you still spend time together as a family but everyone’s needs are met.
- Teach understanding and patience. A wide age gap offers wonderful opportunities for older children to learn about child development. Help your child understand that a younger sibling is still developing the cognitive, language, and social-emotional skills necessary to share, work cooperatively, and follow directions. Offer tips for handling challenging behaviors. At the same time, don’t expect your older child to become a third parent. Listen with empathy when your child expresses frustration about a younger sibling. An older child needs privacy and shouldn’t be expected to share her things all the time.
- Protect and foster a younger child’s development. Your tween loves playing Dance Party and listening to Maroon 5, but you might not be thrilled about your 3-year-old developing similar interests. Helping older children understand that what’s appropriate for them that might not be appropriate for a younger child will help you manage the large age gap between them. At the same time, avoid “babying” your younger child. Maintain high expectations, set reasonable rules, and be consistent in following through. Involving younger children in family chores by asking them to complete simple tasks around the house and to clean up after themselves can help foster your child’s development while also creating a fair chore environment.
- Plan one-on-one time. In families with large age gaps, the bulk of a parent’s time and attention often falls to the younger children, simply because their needs are so obvious. While older children often make patient, empathetic, and even protective siblings, they’re still children. Schedule one-on-one time just for them. Go out to lunch, attend the theater, or rally for your favorite team. Plan a date with each of your children, alternating with your partner, once or twice a month.
Whether your children are two years or 10 years apart, parenting is a constant adventure with moments of pleasure as well as frustration. Take a positive, proactive approach to parenting. Be ready to adapt and change as your children hit new developmental milestones.
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