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RELATIONSHIPS / ORANGE COUNTY

It's All Relative : Some parents are opting to have kids close together. Unless families are prepared, that fit may be too tight.

November 16, 1994|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Growing up, Sandra Zoumer was very close to her two sisters. The middle child, Zoumer had a sister 18 months older and a sister one year her junior.

"Because of our closeness in age, my sisters and I played with one another and were involved in the same school activities. As teen-agers, my younger sister and I even double-dated," she says.

When Zoumer decided to have children, she wanted the same close relationship for them, so she planned to have her kids less than two years apart. Today she has three daughters 9, 8 and 6 years old.

"I haven't seen any jealousy between the girls," says Zoumer, who divorced their father when the oldest child was 4 and married her current husband two years later.

"If anything, the girls cheer each other on," she says. "They're really united and even consider themselves the Three Musketeers."

Though it's less common to space children close together in age than it used to be 15 to 20 years ago, there are still some parents who choose to do so for a variety of reasons, says marriage, family, child counselor Janet Whitney of Coastline Counseling Center in Newport Beach.

"If having children close together is planned and anticipated with joy, and the parents are disciplined and organized, then the experience can be a positive one," she says.

Close age spacing has some advantages for parents. "Adults pass through the physically demanding baby years more quickly and can rid their house of baby apparatus. They can also plan the same activities for the children," she says.

Despite the advantages of close age spacing, the prospect can be physically and financially draining for parents, especially in the beginning, when they are dealing with an infant and young toddler at the same time. These pressures are greatly increased when a child comes unplanned, Whitney says.

Whitney encourages parents to consider not getting pregnant again until the previous child reaches at least his or her second birthday. She says optimum spacing is three or four years, so that children get adequate attention before the next sibling comes along.

"A lot of parents think that children (born) close together will be perfect little buddies," Whitney says. "The fact is, children born close together have more of a sense of competition, unless parents are aware of this propensity and work toward avoiding potential rivalry."

Competition is especially a problem when the children are the same sex and similar in appearance and personality. This childhood rivalry is sometimes so strong it reaches into adulthood.

"I counsel two young women who are a year apart in age and both very beautiful," Whitney says. "The younger one recently became extremely depressed because she wasn't homecoming queen like her sister had been last year. She made it onto the court, but that wasn't good enough."

Competition between siblings close in age stems from the fact that children don't generally begin to act like individuals and realize that the world doesn't revolve around them until they reach the age of 2. Before that time they are unable to separate from their parents, experts say.

Considering this, it's very important that the older child gets adequate attention after the baby comes, Whitney says. "An 18-month-old needs physical attention too, even if that means holding the baby in your arms and having your toddler in a backpack."

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To encourage close relationships between children, they must be taught not to compete against each other, and shouldn't be treated as a unit, Whitney says. Each child needs individual attention from the parents and the ability to go off at times and do his or her own thing.

Zoumer says she is fully aware of the possibility that her three girls might compete and has always stressed that they don't.

"I never compare the kids," she says. "Instead, I always tell them to do their best and not compare themselves to each other. I focus on their individual accomplishments. As a result, I haven't seen any sibling rivalry."

Zoumer, 37, a Mission Viejo writer, also makes sure not to treat the children as a unit.

"When they're close in age, it's easy to consider them a conglomerate because they play together and are at similar stages," she says. "The trick is to treat them as individuals."

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The Zoumer children get special, separate time with their parents, including on their birthdays. The birthday girl gets to go out to lunch alone with her father and spend the afternoon alone with her mother.

"It's really a treat for the girls to get me all to themselves," Zoumer says. "They open up and talk about things they might not bring up otherwise."

The only disadvantage of the close spacing Zoumer can see is the fact that they will all hit college at the same time.

Because of her chaotic relationship with her brother, who was 14 months older, Linda Hill, 40, wanted to make sure that her son and daughter, who are two years apart, would have a much different relationship.

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