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Let’s face it: spacing children isn’t something we parents always have under total control. Not only do pregnancies occur sometimes when we weren’t planning on them but sometimes children come in multiples without any planning on our part at all, so that there’s no space between siblings.

In addition, there are good reasons to space children close together. Parents get past the preschool years quickly and can get back to work or whatever else they were doing “before babies.” Siblings near in age to each other make natural playmates.

New evidence supports the idea, though, that special advantages emerge when children are spaced more widely apart. More space between babies tends to increase children’s chances of reaching higher levels of achievement.

Researchers followed 3532 children from 1503 sibling groups in the United Kingdom. They found, as previous studies have, that first-born are more ambitious than later-born siblings. For example, they found that first-born kids were 7% more likely to complete their educations than their younger brothers and sisters. First-born children were much more likely (16% more) to go on to earn advanced degrees than later-born children.

They also found that girls are more likely to achieve higher educational attainment than boys are, with 13% more girls than boys finishing the equivalent of high school and 4% more girls than boys earning an advanced degree.

But there’s not much we can do about a child’s status as first- or later-born and there’s not much we can do about a child’s sex. What we can do something about is spacing. And the study found that wider spacing between siblings contributes to significantly higher achievement for all children in the family.

Wider spacing means that younger children get more adult attention, since their earlier-born siblings may be more independent and take up less of a parent’s time. It may also mean that with wider spacing later-born children are raised by older, more experienced parents, which confers an advantage similar to being the first-born, center-of-the-universe child of younger parents. Wider spacing among siblings provides later-born children with an accomplished sibling role model that may inspire early achievement as younger kids try to keep up with their older brothers and sisters.

What does this mean for you?

First, if you intend to have more than one child, consider all possible factors surrounding spacing of babies. These factors may be economic factors related to parents’ careers or children’s future tuition needs, logistical factors related to extended family support, geographic location, and parents’ own educational or business plans, and simple preference. The key is to think things through.

Second, no matter what a child’s position within the family, keep in mind that every position has its advantages and disadvantages. First-children are Mom and Dad’s “guinea pigs” on which they hone their parenting skills. Later-children might enjoy more relaxed parenting but also less pressure to achieve. The ups and downs of family life mean that each position in the family experiences a different set of influences.

Finally, remember that each child is an individual, not a position in a set of siblings. Old notions of the inevitable influence of being the eldest, the middle child, or the baby become self-fulfilling prophecies if they determine parents’ expectations for each child. Studies like the UK study present general truths, not the particular truth of your special family.



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.