My youngest child – nine years younger than her closest sibling – is that kid with whom I would have NEVER let my oldest children play.
By age two, she was singing inappropriate song lyrics. Her older brother thought it was really funny to teach her the words to Kesha’s "Tik Tok." By five, she had some familiarity with the main plot points of the "Walking Dead" (although she'd NEVER seen an episode, I SWEAR). By six, she was pretending a 19-year-old was her boyfriend (said boy was actually her sister’s boyfriend).
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics Report, the birth rate in women aged 40-49 has risen over the past decade. Sociology-types list things such as education, career, finances, and a desire to travel as a few of the reasons that women are having kids later in life.
Aida Vazin, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California, says blended families are adding to the trend of having older children and younger children in the same household.
"I have noticed a larger population of blended families and a new budding trend of a large age gap between siblings - however, not as high as blended families," she says.
My youngest, Ginger, was born when I was 40 and my older kids were nine and 12. She was not an “oops” or the result of a second marriage, but a planned baby that I decided I wanted because I felt older and wiser and wanted to do the baby thing one more time. I tell people she was my 40th birthday present to myself. (How I got my husband on board with this is the topic of another post).
However, regardless of the reason for having a child later in life, raising siblings with large age gaps between them, while full of joys, also has its own unique set of challenges.
By the time Ginger was hitting her stride with language and beginning to look at the world around her for social cues, I also had a teen and a pre-teen. And they shared – sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally – all kinds of things from their teenage culture with their baby sister.
Conversations around the dinner table about things like relationships, drugs, teenage pregnancy, alcohol, were providing an education for the baby that we didn’t necessarily want her to have. Even though we tried to be careful about what was said in front of her, it quickly became evident that she was more worldly than her older siblings had been when they were her age.
Wendy O’Connor, a licensed marriage and family therapist and relationship coach in Brentwood and Encino, California, says that’s a natural phenomenon. Her words helped me stop beating myself up over the fact that Ginger was so culturally savvy at such a young age.
“At some point children have to grow up. Kids will be exposed to older teens/young adults and inappropriate topics,” Dr. O’Connor says. “Often they bump into inappropriate, damaging, and traumatic topics through technology and especially from the news via television and radio. The coping strategy for parents is to not avoid but to educate.”
Christina DiBartolo, LMSW, Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, agrees but suggests setting aside one-on-one time with older kids to reduce the exposure.
“As long as there have been siblings, there has been a transfer of information from the older to the younger child,” she says. “And the maturity level of the information increases as children age.
"Parents can set up . . . time with their older children to discuss matters on their adolescents’ minds without interference from younger siblings. That way, when older siblings introduce a mature topic of conversation during family time, parents can ask them to defer until the pre-determined discussion.”
DiBartolo also recommends that people who are simultaneously parenting older and younger children, “Take advantage of technology and insist that older kids use ear buds to listen to music that has more mature content."
Also, set parameters about adult language that has begun to creep into adolescent vocabulary. “When younger children overhear their older siblings using language you don’t approve of, handle it just as you would if your child overheard it on the street. Explain that while some people sometimes use those words, you expect members in your family to find different words to express themselves,” DiBartolo says.
Another difficulty is the idea of fairness, according to DiBartolo. “Parenting different ages has inequality built in,” she says. “Of course your five-year-old does not have a 10 p.m. curfew, just as you wouldn’t tell a 16-year-old to just have one more bite of broccoli.” Older siblings also can resent that younger siblings get away with behaviors while they have higher expectations placed on them.
Embrace the inconsistencies,” DiBartolo says. “Your children are different; you are right to treat them differently. Hear your kids out if they have complaints. That doesn’t necessarily mean changing what you’re doing.” She adds that encouraging discussion models good interpersonal communication skills that children can use for the rest of their lives.
Siblings who are far apart in age are not immune to sibling rivalry, but the age gap can make it hard to address, according to Vazin. “There will be a clear sense of differential treatment between siblings with big age gaps, which may result in acting out behavior from either sibling.”
Additionally, older siblings may at times may feel the burden of having to co-parent the child, according to Vazin. “And a younger sibling may feel too controlled because of having to answer to too many authority figures.”
Again, open and honest communication is key. “It’s best to discuss the expectations and role of each family member in the home,” she says. “It’s important to set activities that may be more inclusive and can bring more connection and bonding between different age groups.”
DiBartolo emphasizes that a large age gap also brings some big benefits. “Anytime children are exposed to a variety of experiences, it’s an opportunity for learning,” she says. “As for older children, younger siblings can provide them with the excuse to let themselves relax and play.”
Thankfully, for me, the joys of having Ginger at age 40 far outweighed the challenges, even the embarrassment of her singing about brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack. Now that I’m just months from my 50th birthday, most of my friends are already empty-nesting or preparing to do so.
I, on the other hand, got one more “at bat” with “Goodnight Moon,” Santa Claus, and trips to the zoo. And DiBartolo added, that a “later in life” baby who follows older siblings gets to enjoy parents who have more perspective.
That was certainly true for our family. While we weren’t perfect and had many moments that we failed to embrace, we sometimes managed to enjoy her in a way that many parents don’t experience until they are grandparents.
One memory stands out for me: When Ginger had croup for what seemed like the fifth time, I was sitting in the bathroom, cradling her sweaty, feverish body against me. While a hot shower filled the room with steam to give her some relief, I realized I was actually enjoying the moment – not her being sick, but the privilege of holding her – thinking, “Before I know it, this will pass.”