Ages 0-5: One Less in the Nest

The eldest of my three daughters starts kindergarten this fall. While my husband and I are nervous and excited, one thing we hadn’t thought about was how this transition would feel for her younger sisters. What happens when your oldest child starts school? Do you magically have more time and energy? How does this transition affect the household?

New Activities for the Siblings

Pam Passey of Cary is looking forward to the oldest of her two daughters starting preschool. Although the time she will have with her younger daughter will be limited, she anticipates being able to create some quality activities for her. “I’m looking forward to story time at the library where I can focus on just Kate,” she says.

Passey also is contemplating something that every parent of more than one child thinks about: truly getting to know the younger child outside the context of “little brother” or “little sister.” She says, “I’m looking forward to figuring out her strengths — and weaknesses — so I know how to better encourage her. She’s a different girl when big sister isn’t around.”

More Time for the At-Home Caregiver?

Repeatedly, I’ve heard parents talk about the time they get back when all their children finally start school. Passey is hoping that with one of her children in preschool, she will be able to scrape together some time for herself. “I hope to take some art classes through the town of Cary,” she says.

Other parents agree that sometimes they have been able to carve out some time from their busy schedule, but it’s not always as much time as they think they will have. Jane Riepl of Chapel Hill was surprised that she did not have more time when the elder of her two children started preschool.

“I have to say, looking back to Nicole’s first year of preschool, it didn’t actually feel like extra time. I know it was, but I spent most of it driving her to school, running errands to kill time until school was over, and then driving her home again,” Riepl says.

Disruptions for the Sibling

Another aspect of having one child in school and another at home is the process of juggling school pick-ups and drop-offs with nap times, meal times and play times. Often, having a set start time at preschool or kindergarten means the other aspects of the family schedule are forced to become more flexible. The first casualty is often nap time for younger siblings.

“I tried at first to use it [her elder child’s school time] for his morning nap, but usually had to wake him to get her from school,” Riepl says. “For Zack, it just meant a tighter schedule and more time in the car.”

Lost Playmate?

Parents may wonder how the younger sibling will feel without the older child around for entertainment. In my house, although my girls can argue while playing together, they keep each other company and enjoy having someone else to play with them (or perhaps near them).

Says Passey, “I definitely think Kate [the younger child] will miss Anna [the older child].” And finding a substitute round-the-clock playmate for a younger child isn’t really possible. For many moms, not having the older sibling around means slowing down and spending more concentrated time with the younger child while letting household tasks slip. However, having that time is also part of the joy of having one fly from the nest.

Robin Whitsell is a writer who lives in Chapel Hill with her husband and three daughters. She can be reached through

Smooth the Transition

Get an idea of the school schedule and how the logistics will work in your household. What times are drops-offs and pick-ups? Is there any flexibility? Do you need extended care programs?

Find out what programs exist for younger siblings. What time is library story hour? Is this a good time to get a membership at one of the kid-friendly museums or kid gyms?

Prepare the younger and older sibling for what it will be like when the older child is at school. Reassure them that they will each have special time by having conversations such as, “When your sister goes off to school, we can go to
the park together.” And, “While you are at school having fun and doing new things, I will be thinking about you.” These reassurances may help if there is jealousy from either sibling.

Try a “dry run.” Plan a low-key morning before the actual big day where you feed everyone breakfast, get your child’s school bag ready, load everyone in the car and drive to school. This practice run will let you know the exact amount of time you need when the actual day comes.

Give yourself a break. Don’t feel bad if you drop your elder child off at school and just head home with the sibling and read books or play on the floor. Just because you have “extra time” does not mean you need to fill it.