Who Is Better? The Older or the Younger Parent?

Most experts agree that kids raising kids -- in other words, teen parents -- isn’t usually a recipe for a healthy family. But is there a prime age for raising children?

Parents in their 20s or early 30s have in their corner the potential advantages of energy, flexibility and longevity -- they’ll still be relatively youthful when their children reach high school. Older parents -- in their late 30s and 40s -- theoretically have maturity and a level of emotional and financial stability on their side.

Does this matter? Experts say yes, it can -- although it's possible for people to do a great job of parenting, whether they're teenagers or in their 60s. “I do think it’s more contingent on characteristics and quality of parenting than age,” said Betsy Duvall, a licensed clinical social worker who practices in Denver, Colorado.

Clinical psychologist and author Dr. Susan Heitler, also of Denver, believes the necessary skills can be acquired at any age, though it’s more difficult at the extremes.

To do the best job, Heitler advised, “Become a professional parent.” Capable parenting requires couples to be good parents and good partners to their spouses to form a stable household. “Your baby deserves a professional at both.”

Basically, happy, well-adjusted people make good parents. [Kids] need a combination of someone with enough continuity and constancy but enough flexibility to respond to their explorations.

Betsy Duvall, licensed clinical social worker

The Advantages of Age

“One of the most important characteristics is that a parent, in order to be a good parent, has to put their child’s needs first,” Duvall said.

This can be difficult for young people who are still in the process of developing a strong enough sense of self to put their needs second. “In our culture, a lot of young people are still involved in separating from family when they’re in their late teens and early 20s,” Duvall said. “It puts their emotional needs and their child’s emotional needs at loggerheads.”

The ability to set aside our needs develops as young people mature, she says, but it’s hard to say exactly when young people acquire that talent. “It’s not as if emotional development is ‘done’ at some point,” Duvall said. “It’s not like a cake.”

For Heitler, co-founder of the online therapy site PowerOfTwoMarriage.com and a blogger at PsychologyToday.com, stability is a major factor in parenting and requires a stable marriage.

“Young marriages are less reliable,” suffering from a higher divorce rate among other issues, she said. “Parents need a great relationship. Kids do better in sunshine than in hurricanes.”

Another advantage of age, Heitler said, is “to be old enough to be comfortable being in authority,” a necessity in raising children.

Then, of course, there’s maturity. “People underestimate how much maturity is a function of skills,” which are learned over time, Heitler said.

The Advantages of Youth

A major advantage of youth is the higher energy level, which can come in handy when parents must get up in the middle of the night with an infant or want to go ice skating or throw a ball with an older child, says Heitler.

Younger people also tend to be less set in their ways and more flexible in reacting to changes, which come often and quickly during children’s formative years. People in their 20s and early 30s are in the process of breaking away from home and starting new careers and friendships, so change for them is often a constant, says Heitler .

“When we get older, sometimes we get a little more rigid and less flexible and not as open to new things,” Duvall agreed.

Additionally, young people often have fewer commitments, leaving them more time for parenting.

Older parents may have the advantage of authority, but that can turn into a disadvantage if parents are too rigid, believing there’s just one way to do things -- their way.

Another disadvantage to having children later in life is that the children are more likely to lose their parents sooner to death, says Duvall. That also goes for grandparents, aunts, uncles and other older members of the extended family, which diminishes the family base.

Overcoming the Disadvantages

Learning to put your own needs second to your child's needs isn’t easy. “I once heard a noted psychiatrist saying it requires the highest level of psychological function of anything a human can do,” Duvall said.

But it can be learned. “Maturity can be enhanced,” Heitler said. “That’s what therapy does for people. It helps them to grow up under the warmth and tutelage of a good therapist -- hopefully.”

Other obstacles of youth or age can be overcome, too. Take the energy issue for older parents. Where they get in trouble, says Heitler, is when they have full-time jobs, community responsibilities and personal issues competing for their time. In that case, it’s wise to pare down responsibilities.

“If you have lower energy but you clear the decks of other commitments, you could be a phenomenal parent,” Heitler said. Younger and older parents can have disadvantages, she said, but “all of that gets overridden by good parenting technique.”

Parents working on their relationship with each other can do wonders for child rearing. “One of most important factors is [if] he has two parents who love each other,” Heitler said.

Duvall put the same idea a different way: “Basically, happy, well-adjusted people make good parents,” she said. “[Kids] need a combination of someone with enough continuity and constancy but enough flexibility to respond to their explorations.”

Confessions of an Older Parent

My first child was born 24 days before my 40th birthday. Four years later, almost to the day, she was joined by two brothers. When we learned that my wife was pregnant the first time -- and even more so the second -- I wondered: Would I be the oldest parent at the PTA meeting? Would I be able to throw a football with them? Would people mistake me for their grandfather? Would I live to be a grandfather? I needed a plan.

Six months after my daughter was born, I started an exercise regimen. It isn’t extensive, but it offers me few excuses, so I rarely miss. I also keep my weight, cholesterol and blood pressure down. I’ve tried to be flexible and open to new ideas. I learned early on that my kids were multitasking, not distracting themselves with music and TV while doing homework. Fortunately, their grades and other accomplishments have borne out that theory. I’ve striven to accept electronics, becoming an early adopter of texting. With three fanatics in the house, I’ve learned enough about contemporary music to amaze my peers.

For me, I learned that by waiting, I’m far more patient than I might have been a decade earlier. And, I also learned a valuable lesson. A lot of love -- between the parents as well as between the parents and their kids -- can help make up for the mistakes you’ll inevitably make.

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