Five Year Rule

October 16, 2006

We had a great midwife. Chosen totally via Karen’s intuition, she nudged us gently toward having a homebirth and to considering attachment parenting. Today we champion both these ideas but I’m only just cottoning on to what she was saying about age gaps between children. She herself already had one child but wasn’t planning to have anymore until the oldest was five.

We paid scant attention to this idea and when our oldest reached 18 months started talking that usual talk of how she ‘needed a playmate’ and all that. Aside from the fact that this might be a rationalisation for us not wanting to be the playmate this is one of those standard ways of thinking that we tend to assume are our own thoughts when we’re not on guard.

There’s a gap of two years and nine months between our two and it’s true that they’re starting to play with each other now that the youngest is past 18 months but the rivalry is really obvious and the effect it’s had on our oldest is also terribly apparent.

I remember we used to sit at lunch and often both of us parents would just look at her in a kind of rapt fascination. We tried to prepare her for the birth as best we could but it must come as a massive shock to any oldest child when their parent’s devoted attention shifts from them to the new baby in the blink of an eye. We’ve heard horror-stories from other parents about how the first child has been violent toward the new baby and things like that. Luckily we haven’t had any of that but our oldest has for well over a year now been in a permanent phase of acting like a baby in an attempt to get our attention back. It’s heart breaking to watch but it can drives us up the wall she persists with it. She’s past the super cute baby phase and we’re less indulgent with her but there is obviously a strong unmet need there.  

Typically my thoughts run to my usual “If only we were in a village” but also I dwell on what things might have been like if we had a five year gap. No doubt this is a slightly idealised view but my expectation is that with a bigger gap the oldest would then be part of the caring team and when the adults did the usual “ahhh isn’t the baby cute” routine she would be more inclined to join in rather than feel like this is attention that has been stolen from her.


I know I regularly focus on the negative aspects of parenting in this blog – I  hope I’m learning better ways of doing things as well as getting things off my chest but I should add that I don’t feel completely helpless about this one. There are many occasions where our two girls are absolutely delightful when they’re together, and we’ve realised that we can do much to create these occasions by doing the groundwork of loving them and meeting their needs really well. The days when we do do this well stand out for the marked lack of squabbling between our two girls.


One comment

  1. If one breastfeeds exclusively, nature has a way of making sure children are two-three years apart (usually). I think we should pay attention to this. Of course the older sibling will feel displaced and sharing the spotlight may leave a void, but I think this is necessary and leads to healthy development. Sure there will be pouting and regression (I don’t know any family who has more than one who hasn’t experienced that upon a new birth), but, over time, it sparks an independent spirit and self-sufficiency that is vital to a healthy adulthood. Years ago, a psychologist co-worker of mine was adamant about a 7-year gap between kids as being optimal. Recently, as his oldest is having trouble adjusting to adult life, he took back what he said!

    Posted by: Loretta | 10/17/2006

    I disagree that feeling displaced leads to healthy development, I think it leads to the child in question growing up to be what civilisation calls a responsible, mature person – in other words someone useful to civilisation, which I don’t think is good for the person in question. It’s pretty much what happened to me.

    I think your pyschologist friend’s problem was not his theory but the fact that in our culture there are too many other factors that mess with our child’s development. Singling out just one won’t actually get you very far.

    Of course this whole debate would be irrelevant if we lived in a village setting where there were plenty of adults and older children to attend to the needs of the smaller individuals.

    This link http://www.nd.edu/~jmckenn1/lab/culturalarticle.html is to a scientific paper that, although it doesn’t talk specifically about displacement does dismantle some of our cultural ideas about independance in children

    Posted by: Aaron | 10/18/2006

    Thanks for the link, Aaron. Very interesting. Our six year old is sleeping with us again and I think it’s really helping him work out some of his anxieties related to school.

    I don’t think I’m doing a very good job of articulating my point of view here. The village ideal you’re talking about requires that the older children have a connection or feel a responsibility toward the little guys, right? What is also required is that the older children understand that the adults trust them. Somewhere between the ages of two and three kids generally decide they’re tired of watching mommy and daddy do everything and want to start taking part in the day to day activities of life. I remember at some point, whether I was teaching kids to pee on the potty, plant a seed, or paint with a brush, they’d stick their chins in the air with determination and say, “I do it!” And they would. Is this the type of independence that turns them into civilization’s soldiers? I don’t think so. Civilization has done a pretty good job ensuring that parents don’t trust their children or anyone who comes in contact with them. This is very hurtful. The healthy child needs to understand that his parents trust him and his growing abilities (And the adult is still there to teach and comfort, guide and protect). Forget skills necessary for a healthy adulthood, don’t children need this type of “independence” to learn in general? To slowly become responsible for their lives and the lives of others? A new baby at this point is not detrimental but helps along the process. Displacement is too strong a word, as it implies neglect, and that’s not what I meant at all. And I completely agree that our cultural ideas about independence are really masking parental laziness, the maniacal need for structure, and a rationalization for the extreme lonliness imposed on children in this country.

    Posted by: Loretta | 10/18/2006

    Ahh, that kind of independance, I’m all for that – and it’s one of the easiest things to have success with too. Our oldest is noticeably more capable than other children her age – and all we had to do was to shut up and stop trying to prevent mistakes. Actually sometimes that’s hard to do but mostly what I notice is other adults underestimating her abilities and her responsible nature, we’ve found we can trust her with lot’s of stuff.

    From my own life I know also that the over protective parenting style really robs us of the ability to know who we are and what our capabiliteis are because the message that type of parenting sends is that the child’s instinct’s are wrong. We treat them like they are hell-bent on maiming themselves when really they have the exact same instinct for self preservation that we have. Problem is that kids sometimes end up believing that self inflicted injury is normal for them and it becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.

    I think in the Continuum Concept Jena Liedloff talks about seeing Yequanna babies, barely able to sit up, playing nest to open pits. She said she was about to rush out and ‘save’ them when she noticed that none of the other adults observing the children were worried and from there she went on to observe that their children have far fewer accidents that western children do.

    I know about the “I do it” thing, our youngest is in the thick of that right now. I try hard to let her do it but it’s especially hard when that means watching her totter down concrete steps. Interestingly though the only time she has stumbled is when I got too close and she mentally handed responsibility for the situation back to me.

    I think the main thing is to listen to them, they know their own needs far better than we give them credit for, which is one reason why I figure the arrival of a new baby too early in the life of the older child is not that helpful. Although having said that it does provide plenty of opportunities to show the oldest how much we trust them with precious little bundles :-)

    Posted by: Aaron | 10/19/2006

    Hello, I have read some of your blog before through ran. We have two girls 4.5 years apart. There was that stage where thing one was the helper and cooing over her sister. I have to now be careful, and have been for sometime, to draw a line at the helper role. I found it too easy to say help your sister with this or that. As thing two got older the desire to help her do anything receded greatly! Now they play and get along, they are 9 and 4, but they get on each other’s nerves. They have their squabbling now that I have come to regard as normal and I guess must be. They argue over space. They still compete for attention, I have often joked that I should have named them ‘I want’ and ‘Me too.’

    anyway, that’s us.

    Posted by: angie | 10/19/2006

    Exactly! I have such a hard time shutting up and letting my kids learn by experience. I’ve spent my whole adult life learning to trust my instincts. My parents are good people but thought that love equaled constant protection and vigilance. At some point I realized the enormous amount of things I didn’t know/hadn’t experienced because of a fearful nature developed since infancy. I felt robbed! I try not place blame, though; it’s tough to walk that line with your kids, because you do love them so much and don’t want anything bad to happen to them. The problem is that if you try to control everything NOTHING will happen to them at all…then watch out when they go off to college!!

    Angie–I agree the older sibling can fall too heavily into the “helper” role. You’re right, it isn’t a good thing. We struggle with that occasionally with our youngest, who sometimes wants his big bro to do everything for him, even brush his teeth!

    Posted by: Loretta | 10/19/2006

    Anglie and Loretta, thanks for the insight into other family situations. I must admit we do have a bit of an issue with our oldest wanting to ‘over-parent’ our youngest. The worst thing is the only place she could have have learnt this behaviour from is her parents. It’s kinda scary to see my own behavioiur being repeated by a 4 year old.

    Posted by: Aaron | 10/19/2006

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