Dear Dr. Debbie,
I have a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old. They really don’t play much together, but there’s an 8-year-old who comes over to play after school and on the weekends, especially if we’re in the yard. With a four year difference between this boy and my older son, I’m wondering if I should discourage his coming over or just expect it to fizzle out. In the meantime, my kids enjoy the attention he gives them, and it gives me a break. It makes me feel both relieved and a little guilty when he comes around because the three of them will actually play quite nicely together while I catch up with the rest of the world on my iPhone.
Is Age Just a Number?
Don’t miss last week’s column Juggling children’s needs after a new baby — Good Parenting
Playmates of the same age are critical for social learning, however, playmates of different ages have value, too.
Sort of supervision
Parenting is a tough job. Stress is often high for a stay-at-home parent if he or she hardly ever gets a break. You may get a break when your spouse is home, if you have willing and capable grandparents in the vicinity, or if you put your children in school or child care. Typically, breaks don’t come knocking at the door.
When my son was a toddler, a 5-year-old girl would come by with her half-dressed baby doll. She adored playing with my real baby, and he was delighted to have a fresh face lavishing attention on him. With him happily occupied, I could divert some of my attention to the simple but rare pleasures of cooking or sewing. In gratitude, I sewed a new outfit for her doll.
A formal version of this arrangement is called a mother’s helper. A child around the age of 10 can be hired (minimum wage does not apply) to entertain your child or children while you take care of other things around the house. This is not child care — you’re still on duty — but just some extra hands and eyes. Your young neighbor may qualify for this job in a few short years.
For the parent of the 10-year-old, this arrangement is most welcome. Especially as the preteen becomes an ornery 11-year-old and a “who needs you” 12-year-old. Having a place to go where he is needed and appreciated, gives everyone a breather.
Back in the days before school-age child care became the norm, older children looked out for the younger children and taught them the ropes. A culture of childhood rhymes, games and standards of behavior got passed down through the span of years. Conflict negotiation was handled by the rules of fair play. Minor upsets were treated with judicious compassion. The group did whatever it took to get the game going again. Grownups, of course, were busy doing grown up things. If parents were summoned, it was only because someone needed to go get stitches.
Nowadays we have books of hand-clap rhymes and references for street game rules on the internet. Think how much more authentic it is for children to learn the culture of childhood from an actual child.
Where do the children play?
Take a look at the childhood of today. Neighborhoods are nearly empty during the work day. Families move frequently to follow mom’s or dad’s career. Neighbors also keep moving. Schedules shift seasonally depending on of out-of-school activities. As a result, playmates have to be cultivated again and again. Childcare centers are often divided by age groups which leaves out that natural four to five year spread of “olders” and “youngers.” A child has almost no chance to hang out with a consistent group of children who aren’t his age.
Some families have longstanding friendships with families with children of diverse ages. Frequent get-togethers provide a magical mix of children who aren’t expecting the adults to call the shots, and the adults are more than willing to let the children play. Count yourself fortunate to have a ready playmate pop over to share time with your children. As you’ve noticed, they naturally accommodate one another’s knowledge and abilities because that’s how it works. This is how your children will learn about “do-overs,” “sevensies” and “potatoes.”
The right stuff
Besides benefiting the younger children in learning games to play and how to play fairly, a mixed age relationship benefits the older child too. Nurturing skills are honed when there’s an age difference. Younger children are less capable and more needy so the older child must practice empathy and exercise patience in order for the playing to continue. Management skills are needed, for example, to organize a game of hide and seek. It takes diplomacy to handle the inevitable squabbles that occur between younger children, too. These experiences sharpen the people skills that will come in handy as a grownup.
Self esteem is also enhanced. The older child feels the respect and admiration of the younger ones. He is looked up to. With a few more years of development behind him, he is a real-life model of what’s around the bend. He’s already mastered the bus ride to school. He’s likely had some experience in handling bullies. He’s a seasoned veteran of all that’s yet to come. And with that comes a responsibility to be a good example. If this relationship holds, there is much to gain for everyone.
Now you have one less thing to put on your to do list since you have found an interage relationship for your children.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.