I grew up in a pretty small town with a very tiny school. The upshot is that my grade had about 12 kids in it (including me) in any given year. They were fine, as kids go. But we didn’t have a ton of shared interests and so I wasn’t much more than casual friends with any of them.
In the summer between 6th and 7th grade, I met someone who would become one of my closest friends to this day. He was a year older than me (going into 8th grade), but we had a ton of shared interests and met as a result of them. We became hangout-every-single-day friends quickly.
The next year, he graduated up into high school while I still had a year to go. We still hung out every day (we lived only a few blocks from each other) but we also saw lots of new people. So when I joined him in high school a year later, he introduced me to a cadre of new people. Some of them were older than him – he’d met this person in math class, who had a brother two years older who was cool, and that brother’s friends became our friends, and one of them had a sister one year older, so we were friends with her, so her friends became our friends. One of them had a younger sister who was close in age to my younger sister, so they melded in. My cousins were between those ages so we absorbed them. The web grew and grew, and to think that it would have been even possible, let alone good to only hang out with people the exact same age as me plus or minus six months would be ludicrous.
Over the course of the time between that 7th-grade year and my first year as a parent, my friend group has ranged easily 15 years in either direction of my own age. My sister is eight years younger than I am, but our closeness, in turn, drew our respective friend groups together, and since both of ours had decent age ranges by themselves the total group’s range was very wide indeed. At my family’s annual 4th of July party (the party of the year by all standards), it wasn’t uncommon for the 40 or more “kids” to be as young as 5 or as old as their late 20s.
This was a group dynamic, of course. The range is more understandable when it’s fifteen people getting together than if it’s three, but it wasn’t unheard of for two or three people hanging out to have ten years between the youngest and oldest.
And all of this was very, very good. Older kids with good hearts are the kind of loyal guardian parents can’t ever really be and dream of having for their offspring. Younger kids with good intentions help older kids step into maturity and responsibility – and often keep them honest and humble. When people say “it takes a village,” that doesn’t just mean that it takes a village of adults to supervise the kids. It means that those kids are good for each other.
Let me say that again: kids are good for each other. It’s good to put the kids together that like each other and let them run around town, finding adventures and yes, even getting into a little trouble. They will protect each other. They’ll protect each other from the very things you’re most afraid of when you think about your precious little darling hanging out with “the older kids,” as if anyone older than your own kid was automatically a wicked influence. The first time I experimented with alcohol (and yes, shocker, your kid will probably do that), I had an army of older kids telling me how to take care of myself, not drink too much, not get “wasted,” and so on. I had an older kid smack a cigarette out of my hand – and I’ve smacked a few out of the hands of younger kids. I’ve had younger friends who tried drugs call me to come get them, knowing they couldn’t call their own parents, and so were able to be transported somewhere safe rather than stay where they might not have been.
And those are the extreme things! In between those big dramatic moments were a thousand tiny ones, helping each other and learning together and growing together. Becoming better adults for our society we made. Adapting to different interests, learning social cues and graces, building up each others’ confidence.
Now we have our own kids, and they play together – regardless of age. I have more of a link to them than my parents had to me, but I never use it. And I don’t warn my kids about some silly, imagined dangers of “older kids.” I encourage them to make friends wherever they find them, and most of the social lessons I give them are about how they can become better “older friends” to those they meet.
There is evil and wickedness in the world. Some of it will target kids, and some of it will even reside within them. That is a very poor reason to try to hide your kids from the world. Evil and wickedness are a very, very, very tiny percentage of the world. The only chance it has to grow is if all the good in the world hides from it. But if you flood the world with good, there’s nowhere left for evil to be. Train your children to be shepherds and send them out into the flock. They will be neither the oldest nor the youngest, ever. Sleep well at night, knowing that.