Monday, April 26, 2010

Four years, eight years, 18 months: Does sibling spacing matter?

Geoff Edgers had an engaging essay in yesterday’s Boston Globe Magazine about the decision he and his wife made – quite intentionally, according to him – to have their second child when their first is already eight years old. Because the second is due to arrive any day, he doesn’t yet know just how this will play out, but he has a few theories. He (or maybe his editor) ended the piece with a provocative question: In a perfect world, what would be the right amount of time between siblings?

Like most questions of its ilk, has no definitive answer. I don’t think it even has a consensus. And in my experience, it’s a question a lot of people are uncomfortable posing, in light of the wide range of success or lack thereof that so many parents these days have in timing their childbearing with any precision. Given what I know anecdotally, my guess is that the Edgers family has as good a chance as anyone of creating sibling harmony through the choice they’ve made.

My children are three years and eleven months apart. It wasn’t exactly what we intended – we would have been happy with two and a half years between kids – but where I was past thirty when our first child was born, we weren’t surprised when it didn’t happen exactly according to our ideal schedule. We felt lucky to have it work out for us as well as it did.

So now, when people ask my opinion about the spacing between our children, I generally say that four years has worked out nicely for us. At the same time, many of my friends who have more than one child spaced them closer together and are also content with how it worked out. The more situations I consider, the more it seems there are many factors more significant than spacing that determine how well siblings get along and how smoothly the family functions as a whole.

In our case, I usually point out that kids four years apart are unlikely to compete with each other much. My kids enjoy different toys, different friends, different activities, so it’s rare that rivalry results from competing for any resource. Even parental attention – which some specialists consider the only genuine source of competition between siblings – isn’t really a resource they squabble over, since they want our attention in such different ways: Tim wants my husband to play ball with him while Holly wants to sit in my lap, for example. And with four years between kids, it’s simply a given that certain things are going to be different for them, such as bedtimes and household chores, whereas those are factors that children closer in age sometimes see as a source of unfairness.

Nonetheless, I often think the source of my children’s sibling harmony – when it prevails, which it often though not always does – has to do as much with their being different sexes and just different personalities than with their being four years apart in age. My older sister’s children are five years apart, both girls, and when they were younger this didn’t seem to help them at all in terms of getting along, though by the time they were about 10 and 15 they’d eradicated all traces of rivalry and become the best of friends. In their case, I think it helps that the younger girl is so physically and intellectually advanced that she almost never seems to be trailing behind in any way, but my sister says this is partly because the older one always served as built-in motivation for the younger one to strive harder. When I asked my sister how Phoebe, her younger daughter, learned to read so early, Lauren said that it just never occurred to Phoebe that she couldn’t do anything Sophie could do. On the other hand, back in the days when they didn’t get along as well as they do now, Lauren had a simple explanation: “Phoebe can’t get past her resentment at the fact that Sophie has had five more years to eat candy than she has.”

The one drawback I sometimes mention in relation to kids as far apart in age as mine are is that they don’t have many interests in common, and while this is a positive thing when it means they’re not fighting over the same scooter or book, it does sometimes come into play for something like planning a family vacation. As it happens, this past week was our school vacation week, and the kids and I traveled together to Washington D.C. With so many choices regarding which museums and attractions to visit, I was more aware than usual of their very different developmental levels. Tim, at age 11, spent hours engrossed in the exhibits at the Newseum, especially the Berlin Wall and the 9/11 areas of the museum, whereas journalism isn’t particularly of interest to Holly, who is 7. But she has a large capacity for having fun regardless of where she is; she became engaged looking at all the different kinds of lettering and characters used in newspapers from around the world. And they both equally enjoyed our three hours at the National Zoo the next day.

Eight years between kids is unusual, but so is 16 months. We know families who have done fine with the latter – it’s labor-intensive for parents to have two small children less than two years apart in age, but it tends to result in siblings who spend a lot of time playing together – and no doubt the eight years will work out fine for the Edgers family as well. My kids already seem aware that the older they get, the less apparent their age difference will be. And other than possibly the one (or more) year that my husband and I are likely to be paying two college tuitions, I don’t think it’s something we’ll ever see as a problem either.

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