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Behavior: Older Parents: Good for Kids?

5 minute read
Martha Smilgis/New York

“Put off today what you can do tomorrow” has long been the motto of many baby boomers. Until, that is, the biological clock began its inexorable countdown. Today even some of the most committed postponers of parenthood are finally deciding to have children, producing a record crop of late-in-life babies. The number of women 35 or over who are giving birth for the first time has quadrupled in the past decade, and is expected to increase further in the next few years. Sure, there are advantages to starting a family in your late 30s and early 40s. But what about the children who must build sand castles with graying oldsters who can’t play ring-around-the-ro sy without breaking into a sweat?

In some U.S. urban areas, older parents are becoming the norm. Author Martha Fay, 41, mother of a five-year-old daughter, says of her West Side Manhattan neighborhood, “Some of the mothers look so old they don’t appear biologically capable of having had these children. We have 50-year-old men teaching soccer teams.” For both sexes, the benefits of postponing kids are greater financial security and well-established careers. What is more, there is no question that late children are wanted — often badly wanted. Says Susan Fillin-Yeh, 45, an art historian at Yale and mother of a nine-year-old daughter: “At this stage I’m not battling to find out who I am. I’m a better parent now than I would have been.”

That may be. But there is plenty of evidence that late children often have problems that other kids do not face. Witness Last Chance Children (Columbia University; $19.95), a new study of 22 adult children of older parents by sociologist Monica Morris of California State University, Los Angeles. Morris found that only two of her subjects would wholeheartedly choose to have their children later in life. The others unleashed a litany of lateborn woes. They said older parents, usually fearful of physical injury and health problems themselves, were often reluctant to participate in games and sports. Some complained they were deprived of grandparents at too early an age. “No doubt, having children earlier is better and later is worse,” says Yale Psychologist Edward Zigler. “Children are always a blessing and a trial.”

It is no secret that children may be embarrassed by their parents’ gray hair, their outmoded clothes and opinions that may seem as antediluvian as dinosaurs. And parental physical incompetence can be mortifying. For Tom McDonough, 49, the memory of playing baseball with his 58-year-old father is especially painful. “I said, ‘Dad, run, run.’ He dropped the bat and looked at me and said, ‘I can’t.’ ” Says Sasha Lawer, 30, a daughter of older parents: “When I wanted to play, they would send my brother.”

Some children recall their older parents as reserved and serious and readily acknowledged that they learned to behave similarly. Dan Janeck, 25, of San Diego, remembers feeling like an adult by age seven: “I was responsible, commitment-oriented. My relatives were older. Although I was a child, I had an adult view that other kids were going through their childhoods.” Others, too, find it difficult to connect with peers. “Even in college, at beer parties, I would have the attitude of a 54-year-old,” says Lawer. “When a child says, ‘Mommy, Mommy, guess what just happened,’ there is a difference in the response of a 22-year-old and a 42-year-old. The younger person is closer to childhood to share the wonder.”

That emotional gap can widen during a child’s teens, when older parents are in their late 50s or early 60s. Janet Spencer King, 46, a Manhattan mother who had her first child nine years ago, foresees an “empathy gap” when her children hit their teens. “As you get older, you get secure and comfortable with who you are,” she says. “You don’t waste energy, you are moving ahead. You can become dismissive of people who are different. Meanwhile, adolescents have to experience all the different feelings in order to grow.” Older parents can put additional pressure on their children to excel. “I make no bones about it. I want my kids to be superachievers,” admits King. “I take the long view now.”

Lateborn children are likely to be more aware of death than many of their peers. Certainly, as young adults, they may find themselves caring for a chronically ill parent. Perhaps because she is the daughter of older parents, King understands her daughter Megan, 9, when she says, “Mommy, I wish you were younger; then you wouldn’t die so soon.” Still, psychologists think many children are acutely afraid of death when they are very young — and when their parents are least likely to die.

The trade-off for older parents, as Yale’s Zigler notes, is probably “energy level vs. maturity.” It may be that attentiveness and commitment to children will offset the disadvantages of age. “I am a parent, not an old parent,” insists Los Angeles lawyer John Schulman, 42, father of a 2 1/2- year-old daughter. “I devote time, energy and love to my child.” Says Zigler: “Good parenting is a process of bonding and attachment. This is more important than the age of the parent.”

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