Parenting is the best, worst, easiest, most difficult, most rewarding job in the world… whether you have one kid, or twenty! What i’ve found found, though, is that, when you’re parenting a teen and a toddler in the same house, at the same time, things are bound to get a little chaotic!
Hang on second… let’s back it up a little… Let me introduce you to my family… There’s ‘Dad’ – funny, clever, a telecoms engineer. Dad works away from home, six weeks out, two weeks back. It’s not ideal, but over the years we’ve figured out little ways to make the time apart easier on the family. Next up is Kayla. Kayla’s 13, and loves anything anime. She’s teaching herself Japanese, and is dead set on going to study in Japan, although i doubt Dad’s going to agree to that. Little Miss Sara’s our youngest, she’s about to turn 2. Sara attends a bilingual nursery school, and loves chatting to everyone in both English and Spanish.
There’s almost 12 years between our girls. Some people might feel like that’s a huge gap, other’s might see it as quite normal. A few generations ago, families typically had their children spaced 2 or 3 years apart. These days, a larger age gap is not that strange. Parents have more flexibility in the family planning department, and wider age gaps between siblings are becoming more common for a variety of reasons. The Centre for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics Report, reports that the birth rate in women age 40 to 49 has risen in the last decade. There are many possible reasons for this, but some include education, career, finances, and a desire to travel. Blended families also add to the growing trend of parenting kids with a large age gap in the same household.
Having a large gap between kids, like we did, has it’s pros and cons. There’s plenty of joy, lots of laughter and love, and an entirely unique set of challenges.
Sara’s heading into the ‘copycat’ stage and tries to emulate a lot of what her big sister does. Needless to say, it makes for some entertaining viewing…
If she sees Kayla putting on lipgloss, of course, she wants to too. With the lipgloss, for now that’s okay – Kayla only wears clear… Unfortunately (hilariously), Sara doesn’t stop there… Her latest trick is ‘applying’ markers to her lips (and the rest of her face) like lipgloss! Luckily, they’re non-toxic, washable markers.
If Kayla’s eating spicy biltong (South African beef jerky), Sara wants some – she’ll eat it for a while, because sister’s eating it, but eventually she’ll spit it out and hand to me (thanks for that 🙂 ) quickly followed by two chirpy little renditions of the word, ‘Agua…’, ‘Agua…’ (Sara doesn’t use the English word ‘water’ yet).
Kayla is my social butterfly and often has friends over. The girls normally draw or listen to KPop and dance along in the living room. Anytime that Sara hears that music come on, she runs to the living room and starts dancing and clapping along to the likes of EXO and Big Bang. Most of the videos that the girls watch are pretty ‘pg’, but i know that a few of them are a little more ‘risque’… When those come on, i generally tend to find a more age-appropriate activity to try and entice Sara with, but i know that won’t last forever. General consensus by parenting experts is that when older siblings start exposing younger siblings to inappropriate things (music, language, videogames etc), it is the parents job to draw a few very clear boundaries as to acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, and enforce the rules when it comes to them. I have already had a few ‘light’ discussions with Kayla to this effect, but as Sara get older and becomes more aware, i definitely plan to tackle this subject in a more formal way.
Of course, all kids go through the ‘copy-catting’ stage. Parenting expert and author Judy Arnall says kids learn through observation. “Imitating is a very safe way to learn. It’s also necessary to help children learn which behaviours are acceptable in the society and culture they live in, and which are not.”
For the most part, i think it’s adorable and a little messy, but i do worry about what’s going to happen as Kayla gets older and heads further into her teens. I’m hoping (fingers crossed) that there’s not going to be too much teen attitude to rub off onto Sara, but if there is, we’ll deal with it. We’ll set perimeters regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and we’ll schedule one on one time with Kayla to make sure that she has a space to discuss any issues that are not quite ‘family dinner table’ conversation with a curious toddler listening.
Some of the challenges of raising a toddler and teen at the same time are not quite so amusing.
As i mentioned before, Kayla is very sociable, and loves having friends over. While this is normal for her age, and while i do believe that healthy social interaction is very important, having a loud, giggle bunch of girls in the house at Sara’s bedtime does make things a little complicated. Sara wants to ‘stay up’ with the big girls, and even if i do manage to get her to bed, the noise that the girls make often wakes her right back up!
So, what can i do? Well, unfortunately, ‘inequality’ is just one of those things you have to deal with when parenting kids with a large age gap. Yes, Kayla’s needs and wants are important, but, in this instance, her baby sister’s physical need for sleep is more important. Dr Rutherford, a clinical psychologist, mother and grandmother, suggests having an open discussion with your child – encourage them to be open and honest about their feelings, and listen to what each child has to say, but remember, that doesn’t mean that you need to bend your rules or change what you’re doing. Be compassionate and firm in your response. This models good interpersonal communication skills that they’ll be able to use for the rest of their lives.
I am not the only one feeling the frustration though. Kayla sometimes complains that she is carrying too much of a load around the house, having to help with chores while her sister doesn’t, having to help out with Sara, and having to tiptoe around the baby’s schedule. And, even though it’s not an issue yet, i’m sure that Sara’s going to start complaining about the fact that sister gets to ‘boss her around’ as soon as she’s a little bit older.
Often, in families where sibling have a large age gap, the older sibling feels the stress and pressure of co-parenting the younger sibling, and can feel like they have too many responsibilities – helping with laundry, playing chauffeur, babysitter and tutor. The younger sibling may feel too controlled, and may feel conflicted due to having so many authority figures.
The key to dealing with this is, again, communication. Discuss what each family member’s’ roles are, and be sure to show respect and gratitude towards each other. Try and find time for family activities where everyone is working as a team, and don’t forget that even the silliest of activities (like feeding the ducks at the local pond, or building sandcastles) can create a bonding opportunity between siblings.
A large gap also brings lots of benefits for both older and younger sibling, as well as the parents.
Older siblings get a fun, young companion to be silly and relax with. It’s been a long time since i’ve seen Kayla let her hair down and just be a ‘little kid’ (you know how ‘grown up’ 13 year old girls can be 😉 ). Watching her and Sara roll around on the carpet, giggling and pulling faces, is just wonderful! She’s learning to help soothe a crying child, she know’s how to make a bottle and change a nappy (okay, not a ‘dirty’ one 🙂 ), and she’s become a pro a knocking out ham and cheese sandwiches (and a whole bunch of other delicacies) while mom runs after a toddler.
The younger siblings have a relatable person to to look up to and come to when they have issues that they may not feel ‘comfortable’ speaking about with Mom or Dad. Hopefully, big sis or brother is already responsible enough to give valuable, healthy advice. Younger siblings also learn and grow from every interaction, so, whether it seems like a positive, negative, awkward or funny situation, rest assured that your child is learning. Remember, anytime a child is exposed to a variety of experiences, it’s an opportunity for learning!
Mom and Dad benefit by having another set of hands around to help, an extra person on the team. Of course, there’s so much more to it than that – for me, i also cherished having a second go at being a ‘mommy’. Now that i’m older, and wiser, i was really looking forward to giving it another go. The midnight feeds suddenly didn’t seem so scary, and the hours of singing lullabies appealed to me. Yes, having another child a little later is scary. Pregnancy again later in life is a totally different experience. It took my body a lot longer to ‘bounce back’, and, to be honest, there have been more than a couple of days that i’ve sat there thinking ‘What the hell was i thinking?’.
But, as i sit her here now, and survey the chaos that is my living room – 2 baby dolls, wooden blocks, a pacifier and a toddler laptop sprawled across the carpet, real laptop, wacom art tablet and sketchbooks littering the dining room table – i couldn’t be happier for the uniqueness that is our lives. It’s funny, it’s frustrating, it’s fantastic, it’s ours.
Thank you for reading our story. I hope you’ve enjoyed. Do you have kids with a large age gap too? How do you find the experience?