Reader Request Week 2017 #7: Parents, Their Age, and Their Kids

Christine asks:

I recently had my first (and likely only) child, shortly before my 40th birthday. I’m finding the brainpower needed to parent is something I have a lot more of now, at this age. I have more emotional maturity, coping mechanisms, and perspective than I did even as a 30 year old. Do you believe that having children in one’s 20s is more or less advantageous for the child? What about for the parents? And the million dollar question — how do I raise a kid who is progressive and kind and acknowledges her (white, middle-class, Bay Area-dwelling) privilege without being an insufferable know-it-all?

I mean, the second part of that reader request is kind of separate from the first part, so let me answer both.

With regard to parental age, and all other things being okay in their lives of the would-be new parents (a biiiiig qualification), I think becoming a new parent at any age between 25 and 45 is going to mostly turn out okay for the kid. Earlier than 25, I worry about the emotional maturity and financial wherewithal of the parents and how that affects the kid; later than 45, I worry about the parent’s energy levels and frankly ability to stay alive while their kid goes through their entire childhood. This is not to suggest people can’t be great new parents before 25 or after 45; they absolutely can, and I know several people in each case who are (or have been). I do think it adds a few more challenges, however.

Overall, though, I think age is less an issue in terms of what’s advantageous for a kid’s childhood than partner and family support for the parents. I tend to believe it’s better for kids to have parents who are together (and positively engaged with each other); I tend to believe it’s better for parents to have family and friends to call on for help and encouragement and knowledge. I think these things can mitigate other issues where parents (or a parent) have other challenging aspects to their lives.

In the case of my own child, I think Athena’s childhood was substantially improved by having both her mother and me in the same house, and by having Krissy’s family nearby as she grew up. It helped us too — Krissy and I could individually do other things in our life knowing that the other parent had our child-rearing back, and having family nearby meant, among other things, that Krissy and I could have the occasional date night to ourselves (this is important).

With that said, I can say that when I became a parent at 29, I personally felt rather more equipped to handle parenthood than I would have at 25 or 20, which was the age my mother was when she had me. At 25, I was by my own estimation a barely-acceptable actual adult; I wouldn’t have wanted to have me in charge of a tiny human. Forget age 20 entirely; despite my confidence then that I knew everything, I in fact was barely competent to cross a street. At 29 I was working, I had calmed down as a human, and I was looking forward to having a family with my wife; I was in the right place for me, in other words, to become a parent and father.

I suspect that’s the key — the best time to become a parent (presuming any sort of control over the matter) may be the time when you look forward to it, because then you’re present and engaged. And that can happen at 25, or 29, or 32, or 38, or 42 or whenever. Everyone’s different. I think I became a parent at the right time; if you feel the same about whatever age you became a parent, chances are you are correct.

As for raising good and kind children who are also progressive and recognize their privilege: Well, the first question is — are you good and kind and progressive and recognize your privilege? Your child will see you in the world and you will be first adult they look to in order to understand what the expectation is for being a functional human and (eventually) adult. So the first step, I think, is to recognize that you should be the things you want your child to be. That whole “do as I say, not as I do” thing really doesn’t work with respect to moral character.

The second thing is I think it’s easy to consider one’s self good and kind and progressive and cognizant of one’s privilege if one only ever consorts with people who are like one’s self, however one defines one’s self across several axes. As an example, one of the reasons that I think it was important for Athena to live here in Bradford as she grew up is that, as child of well-off parents who are politically liberal, she every day of her life went to school with kids of blue-collar, conservative parents, and saw the differences in opinion and lifestyle (and fundamental, grounding assumptions about life). These kids aren’t abstractions for her; they’re her friends, and I think that’s going to make a positive difference for her in terms of how she builds her own life and character, even as she herself is politically pretty liberal and fairly in tune with her own set of privileges (I just checked with Athena on this assertion of mine; she agrees).

So to that end I would consider making sure that your child is not only ever exposed to folks just like her or in her particular situation, and that this “exposure” to others doesn’t constitute what would essentially be a field trip to the “other people zoo.” Actual tolerance and appreciation of diversity occurs through living it, not just knowing it’s out there. Also, this works for everyone, not just progressives; it’s useful for conservatives (and their kids) to get out their bubbles as well, for example.

Third, and this is important: Remember that your quest to raise a good and kind human is not going to be without its potholes, because you are human and so is your kid. My kid is great, and there were still moments I was all who are you and why are you acting like such a horrible person? And to be fair, there were moments she might have asked the same of me.

The good news for all of this, Christine, is that it seems like you’re ready to take on the challenge of being a decent parent. Good! It’s a continual process. Trust me on that.

21 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2017 #7: Parents, Their Age, and Their Kids”

  1. Great photo of Athena!
    One of my sibs, the one with kids, put it this way: younger parents have more energy and older ones have more maturity, each useful in their different ways.
    While I’m glad John and Krissy had family back-up with childcare, many developed countries have good systems of professional childcare, notably the Scandinavian countries. It’s a shame the US is still so backward in this area, particularly given how many Americans live some distance from family members. It helps kids get a more equal start in life, helps women stay in the workforce and thus helps reduce social inequality.

  2. John –

    You said:

    At 29 I was working, I had calmed down as a human, and I was looking forward to having a family with my wife; I was in the right place for me, in other words, to become a parent and father.

    But previously on Whatever you had said that (paraphrasing) at the time you had just barely rebounded from one of the worst blows to your ego that you had yet experienced (and sorta implied that Athena was, if not an accident, at least not the result of an explicitly deliberate attempt to become a parent).


  3. I think the other thing is to check yourself before reacting to stuff. We moved into a working class neighbourhood with many immigrant neighbours when we started having kids. Diversity=great, right? But then had to stop ourselves from judging. Example-parents from agrarian cultures kids (sorry, no idea where to out the apostrophe there) went to bed very early in the winter and late in the summer. We thought a regular bed time important, but our daughter would hear her friends outside playing and complain. My first impulse (not proud of this) was that they were bad parents, but checked myself and instead said, “every family has its own rules, and remember that you get to stay up later than her in the winter”

    Another thing is that every kid is different. We are very political and our kids went to many demos. But anything where the message was apocalyptic, we had to leave our son with friends or skip the demo, “world about to end” was not a message he could tolerate. And let them pick what is important. He saved up his 10 cents a week allowance until he had a dollar and asked us to send it to the ANC to “help Nelson get out of jail” (and it obviously worked!). I guess that takes me to another point, Expose them to things that might be won, so that they feel empowered to change things. I think the Mandela experience at a very young age may have promoted our son to ask us to challenge provincial adoption laws based on Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms when he was a bit older. And we won again.

  4. I’m 45 and my daughter is 5. Brainpower is fine, but physical energy is a struggle. Thankfully my wife and I can switch off.

  5. I grew up with plenty of privileges since my parents taught at a State University: financially, though not rich we always had enough money for anything really important to us. But the biggest privilege of my upbringing was that I basically grew up on campus, so when I went off to college it was a familiar place and I fit into that environment without much difficulty.

    My father grew up poor, and never forgot that. And without being preachy, made sure his kids realized what the world looked like from a small town during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

  6. John D. Bell:

    Yup, I got swacked with the layoff just before Athena was conceived and it knocked me for a loop. But Krissy and I decided “screw this, we’re gonna make it work,” and that helped a lot. Also, just prior to the layoff, we decided to try for a kid; Krissy went off birth control and was told it would probably take a year to 18 months for the Norplant hormones to get entirely out of her system. We were operating on that assumption. Spoiler: It was wrong. BUT by the time we knew she was pregnant a lot of things were sorted out with career and finances. We were ready.

  7. Possible typo: “however one defines one’s self across several axes. ” — axis?

  8. My wife and I had our one-and-only son at 26 and 28. What helped me in the emotional maturity department was it being after 8 years in the Army, six of them overseas.

    Having our son done with grad school and already full-time employed when I am only 53 is very nice.

  9. I don’t have kids, but it seems to me you can get a complete course in dealing with parenting from a ‘Don White’ search on YouTube, he raised his in working-class Lynn, Mass., esp:
    “Move Out”
    “Brown Eyes” (End of “Adolescent Rant”)
    hint: leave “I Know What Love Is” until last.

  10. I think treating your children with respect is important; you need to model the right way to treat other people by doing it yourself. In particular, apologize to your children when you realize you’ve done something wrong. This is IMHO a really big deal, because it teaches your children that even adults make mistakes, and that your parents owe you respect just as you owe them.

    Don’t treat your children as little adults, because they aren’t, but give them as much agency as they’re ready for. “Do you want to wear the red dress or the green pants?” works better with a toddler than “You are getting dressed Now.” Neither of them works all the time. When you’re exercising parental authority, make it clear. “I know you want to do X, but right now we’re doing Y.” “Why?” “Because I’m the mother and I say so.” Basically, Mom and Dad aren’t right all the time, they aren’t going to do what you want all the time, but they will listen and they will change decisions when it’s appropriate.

    PICK YOUR BATTLES. When you’re heading toward a standoff, ask yourself if this is important to the child’s becoming a good person, or important to your own sanity/standards, or maybe if this is one you should let slide. For instance, in the toddler years we just gave up and put the kids to sleep in what would be their school clothes in the morning. Made the morning out-the-door so damn much easier. They continued this in the elementary years, until they decided for themselves to wear sleep clothes.

    This one isn’t advice, it’s just what I did. We allowed the kids to play mature-rated games before they were the age on the package, and every time they bought a new game we had a talk about the difference between games and real life and that the things you were allowed to do in games were often wrong in real life. In later years, this got abbreviated to “Don’t grow up to be an axe murderer.” “I know, Mom.” or “I won’t murder any axes.”

  11. Fifty-four, single, and childless here (male). Personally, I can’t understand why anyone in their right mind would want to have kids. Isn’t it hard enough to get through life without having kid(s) and making it several orders of magnitude harder?!?! Yeah, I realize if everyone thought like me the human species would go extinct.

    Kids are wonderful…for other people.

  12. My youngest daughter is a month shy of two years old. My oldest daughter is six months shy of 28 years old. I have two teenagers stuffed in the middle. My oldest reminds me that I’ve had a kid in every decade since the 80s. I love being a dad, and if my mom picker wasn’t stuck on “Crazy Train” I’d probably have 10 kids.

    Having said that, I have some experience at being an old dad and a young dad. It’s way better when you’re older. Having that life experience provides you context about what is actually important and what is just noise. It means that all of the things I “had” to do as a younger father are now things I “get” to do as an older father.

    Being a parent is awesome. I can’t understand why anyone in their right mind wouldn’t want to have kids. Life is great, and having kids makes it several orders of magnitude even more great.

  13. My son was born when I was 41 (and my spouse is older, and we also live in the Bay Area, so I share your concerns). So far I can only tell you that while there are times when he outnumbers the both of us and we feel like we’re raising the Energizer Bunny. On the other hand, our friends who had kids at a younger age reported the same thing, so that might just be a thing no matter how old you are or young you feel.

    I will echo our host in that all the parents I’ve seen who I think are doing a good job really wanted to be parents – in some cases, surmounting difficult hurdles and even changing their minds completely on not wanting kids. Being present, engaged and embracing the challenge seems to make a difference in reaping the rewards.

    We try to raise our son to acknowledge the things in his life for which he is grateful, and try to model that ourselves (the phrase “We are fortunate in that …” features prominently when discussing current events, for example).

    One other adjustment I’ve found helpful is that when we compliment our child, we try not to say “You’re so smart” or something like that, but rather “Wow – you must have worked really hard on that” or “You’ve gotten so much better at X – you’ve been practicing and it really shows”. Putting the emphasis on what they did to garner praise helps to teach the lesson that practice and hard work pay off in the end, and hopefully will help foster pride rather than know-it-all-ness and arrogance.

    We’ll let you know how it goes – he’s about to turn 9 :<)

  14. If you wait until you can afford kids, you will never have kids.

    Don’t sweat the small stuff. When you get all the into it, it is all small stuff.

  15. We adopted our son when I was 40 and our daughter 3 years later (or maybe she adopted us … never been too clear on that :))

    There’s definitely an energy gap, especially as we have two extroverts and we’re both introvert, but age has its advantages, namely we’ve seen most everything by the time they came home so the impulse to freak out at a scraped knee or bloody nose or my 6 month old daughter having repeat reflux down the back of my leather jacket wasn’t really there,

    It’ll work out, kids bounce most of the time and even if you don’t feel you’re SuperParent, a temptation when you see other parents seemingly doing the parenting better than you feel you are, you’ll actually be doing great.

    @easilyconfused Hah, never thought I’d see a Don White mention on Whatever. Worth giving “I’m from Lynn” a listen too.

  16. I am grateful to all of the *good* parents out there. I would not have been one of those (for one thing, I *really* enjoy sleep), so I chose not to have any children.

    I feel bad for children of not-so-good parents. My mother divorced when I was 1 and my sister was 4, and completely cut my father out of our lives. She never spoke of her time with my father. They married when she was 21 and pregnant, and he was 22. It was 1956. They moved from New York to California (according to my aunt, to escape my mother’s abusive mother). They split up in 1961. Mom remarried – an abusive alcoholic – when I was 8, in 1968. I have often tried to imagine how horrible the relationship between my parents must have been, given what I witnessed in the relationship between my mother and stepfather over the 40 years they were together (their marriage lasted until my mother’s death in 2008).

    Sometimes having only one parent is preferable.

    I do wish more people really thought about the ramifications of parenting *before* reproducing, and I also really dislike people who consider me somehow “less than” because I did not want, and, at 57, do not regret not having, children.

    You done good, John, you and your family.

  17. @Christine, on the pretense that I can take any credit for what awesome people my now-adult children are, the best way to raise decent human beings is to treat people with respect and dignity, acknowledge your faults, and be willing to talk about hard subjects like privilege in a matter-of-fact way. Your child will learn to treat people with different backgrounds as fellow human beings if you do, too, and if you admit when you screw up (and oh, you will).

  18. I became a “parent” at age 48 when my older sister announced she was pregnant (intentionally, by IVF). She had intended to do this a few years earlier, but an extremely serious accident days before the planned transfer of the embryos caused her to put those plans on hold while she went through a serious of surgeries to repair her insides. The embryos were put into cold storage.

    After the birth of the baby, I helped her out by taking diaper duty and cooking. My work allowed me to work from home (or basically anywhere I could access the Internet).

    She didn’t want her son to grow up an “only child”. Her two other sons were already in their twenties and one was married, so as soon as she was able she started trying to make a sibling. Luck, or her body, wasn’t cooperating, and the supply of embryos in the freezer was starting to dwindle. Two years passed with no successful pregnancy. Her last attempt was in early fall of 2014. Another negative pregnancy test, and only two embryos from that initial batch left in the deep freeze. Her doctor told her that if she wanted another baby she could consider using a surrogate.

    My sister wasn’t likely to try again herself, because she had just been accepted to medical school the following year, and didn’t want to be pregnant or giving birth during classes.

    I offered to pay the cost of using a surrogate, so we began the process of looking for one.

    Around the time we had the surrogate contracted and the transfer of the final two sibling candidates scheduled, my sister began suffering some health issues, and went to her doctor to see what was the matter. She called me with the news (which she suggested I sit down for). A CT scan of her abdomen told the story.

    She was almost five months pregnant. Her last transfer had been successful. The lab had sent the wrong results for the pregnancy test.

    We decided to go ahead with the surrogacy. 2015 saw the arrival of another baby boy. Three weeks later she started medical school, and then five months after that another boy and a girl arrived.

    Now I’m 52, with three one-year-olds and a four-year-old in my care. It’s not a life I ever predicted for myself, but I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything.

  19. My sister had her two kids when she was 24 and 26 years old. She was on the entry-level wrung of a corporate ladder and not moving too fast, but was eligible for benefits – which in Canada meant she got almost a full year off. (They kind of gave her the hairy eyeball when she went back for a year and then got pregnant again almost right away but they got over it.) This meant that when her career did start moving in her mid-30’s, the kids were in school full-time and after-school was manageable. She’s a senior manager now in her early 50’s, and watches other women having kids in their 30’s, and is glad she did it early.

  20. I’m always interested in birth control information/misinformation. My son is about the same age as Athena, and I remember going to Planned Parenthood to have my Norplant removed, and they told me I was ready get pregnant right away (with caveats that at 29 “right away” might take a few months). It took two months, but I’m fairly sure I had an early miscarriage in the first one.

    Now I wonder which opinion was based on research and data, or whether both were just rule of thumbs from the practitioner talking to us. (And which is actually factually correct.) I’d guess Planned Parenthood would tend to err on the side of caution; I wonder if OBs talking to women who were generally trying to get pregnant leaned the other way. Interesting.

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