How does parenting affect children?

We have children later

Mature parents are more relaxed, more confident - and too old to go along with adventures for their children. There are many prejudices like these about late parents. The fact is: Becoming parents is being delayed further and further. What does this mean for upbringing and family life?

Text: Yvonne Kiefer-Glomme
Pictures: Joël Hunn

No question about it, there have always been late fathers, as well as women who, over the age of 40, have had a “straggler”. But what used to happen in individual cases is increasingly becoming the norm.

More and more women and men are putting off having children for a long time for professional or private reasons. Late first-time mothers over 35 are now almost the rule in all affluent countries. The number of so-called last-minute parents, who only become parents over 40, is also increasing every year. There are institutional and individual reasons for the trend towards the late first child, which will be discussed here. But what are the consequences of late parenthood on the development of children?

The statistics show that many women and men today have fewer children than they originally wished for.

From a medical point of view, first-time women over the age of 35 are already high-risk pregnancies. If late parents want a second child, this is often difficult, so that late-borns often grow up as only children - such as 7-year-old Rick. “As far as my age is concerned, I was against another child,” recalls his mother Valérie Sigrist. She had to fulfill her desire to have children with the help of artificial insemination. "In addition, I did not want to do the physical strain of such an operation a second time."

The 47-year-old is not alone in this. "Many women and men today have fewer children than they originally wanted," says Andrea Mosimann from the Federal Statistical Office (FSO). This is also reflected in the fertility rates. While this figure was 2.0 children per woman in Switzerland in 1971, it has fallen since then - according to the FSO - and has remained relatively stable at 1.5 children per woman since 2009.

Do late parents bring up differently?

Even if late parenthood has long since developed from the special to the normal case, questions arise with many prospective mothers and fathers at a more mature age and a certain degree of uncertainty becomes apparent: How will I be towards my children? More anxious and worried than I would have been in my late 20s? Or just more relaxed? To put it another way: What influence does late motherhood or fatherhood have on upbringing or family life?

"Upbringing is an interplay of different aspects and the age of the parents is one of several factors," says Dominik Schöbi, professor of psychology and head of the interdisciplinary institute for family research at the University of Friborg. Therefore it is usually difficult to judge what significance the age of the mother or the father has taken for itself. If you compare a young pair of parents who live in a more conservative rural environment with a young pair of parents in the city, there can be a greater difference in parenting behavior than compared to late parents in rural areas. The social fabric plays an important role.

Added to this are the partnership and family conditions, such as the number and sequence of children. Whether parents are more humorous or more imaginative, however, depends more on their personality. Schöbi: “Parenting behavior is primarily a question of the parents' personality, their individual life situation and their socio-economic framework. However, the last two aspects also correlate with age. "

Better framework conditions for children who will become parents

Women in their 20s usually have better health conditions for a risk-free pregnancy than women over 30. In return, they can often offer their children a more optimal living situation. Mostly late parents have a higher education and are already further in their professional development. “As a result, the majority of the children are born into a better socio-economic context,” says Schöbi.

“Money doesn't make you happy, but a secure financial foundation relieves the burden and has a positive effect on the family situation. In addition, they can more easily finance their children's education, tutoring and hobbies and take advantage of childcare offers. Those who can support the youngsters intellectually and offer suggestions will make it easier for them to gain access to a better school education and higher educational qualifications, ”says the psychologist.

When it comes to relationships, too, late parents usually have more experience.

"Young parents who are still in training or studying usually find it more difficult to achieve their professional goals," says Dominik Schöbi. Simone Meyer, 48, experienced this first hand. When her first daughter Fleur was born, she was already 31, but was working on her doctoral thesis and was in the middle of training as a specialist.

«For this I had to work as an assistant doctor with a 50 percent workload in the hospital. But that was impossible without childcare. Because neither in the hospital nor in the village where we lived there was a crib. My parents couldn't relieve me either, as they were still working themselves. " In addition, she had to work a lot of overtime. Simone Meyer broke off her training and her dissertation at first.

"Young parents are often at risk of poverty more quickly," emphasizes Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello, honorary professor emeritus for developmental psychology at the University of Bern. In addition, they are even more preoccupied with themselves and therefore tend to be overwhelmed in some situations.

Life experience brings serenity

Parents in their mid-thirties have already achieved some of their goals, have been able to live it up, travel. "This is why they can better put their own needs aside without constantly having the feeling that they are missing out," says Dominik Schöbi.

For Valérie Sigrist, children up to their late twenties were not an issue. “I've seen my friends put their wishes and plans for the family aside. Today, at 47, I can fully concentrate on Rick. " The greater life experience can help late parents in stressful family situations to react more intelligently and generously, says Schöbi. In addition, older parents tend to have more self-reflection.

When it comes to relationships, too, late parents have usually gained more experience, put away disappointments and got to know themselves better. “A late relationship is not per se more stable. You may not have known each other as long and you may decide to have children more quickly because time is of the essence ”, says Susanne Wüthrich, 44. She became a mother at 37 and now has three children between the ages of 2 and 7.“ But you are yourself more serene, more rational and more willing to work on a relationship than a young person. "

Late first-time children are usually wanted and the result of a long deliberate decision. “As a result, they are often given different attention than children of younger parents,” emphasizes the psychologist Dominik Schöbi. "Your parents therefore enjoy being with them more consciously."

For a long time she wanted children and suffered two miscarriages, says Susanne Wüthrich. “I am all the more grateful for my children today. As a young woman, motherhood would probably have been more natural for me. Since I have achieved my professional goals, my children are no longer such a major 'limitation' for me and I am very satisfied with my family situation. "

The price of caring

In the negative case, however, the late children are too much in focus. “It is obvious that older parents tend to be helicopter parents,” says developmental psychologist Perrig-Chiello. There is still no age-correlated data on this, but the fact is that older mothers and fathers are not only more thoughtful, but often also more cautious and fearful. "The children sense this and also behave less spontaneously." That means stress for both sides, because it leads to the fact that the children remain dependent.

In addition, the better economic conditions could later tempt parents to spoil their offspring. And last but not least, there is the risk that more mature parents project their own wishes and demands too much onto the child.

For Schöbi, there is no question that parents over 35 are physically less productive than when they were 23, that they cope with a lack of sleep more poorly, that they tire more quickly and that they reach their limits. However, he does not want to derive a general assessment from this. "Due to their better framework conditions, late parents can keep fit." In addition, they have often developed strategies for themselves how they can more easily cope with the double burden of family and work.

The generational difference is evident in how technology is used

André Notter, 64, lives separately from his ex-wife Simone Meyer and has two children with her. “In the beginning it was difficult to have little time for myself and as a teacher to be surrounded by pubescent children at home as well as at school. But I've learned to give my children space when they want something from me, instead of only reacting half-heartedly. If I put my things aside and dedicate myself to them, they can put their concerns down and the relationship is right for them. Then I have space for myself again. "

One area in which the generational differences between late parents and their children are often evident is technical skills: "I notice that we grew up in different worlds, especially with the new media," says Susanne Wüthrich. Her children are “digital natives”, while she and her husband only got to know the new media in adulthood.

“Digitization can be a challenge for older parents. Dealing with it is more a matter of attitude and depends on the personality », says the psychologist Dominik Schöbi. It can also be enriching when children have skills in which they are ahead of their parents.

Older mothers and fathers are not only more deliberate, but often also more cautious and fearful.

But how does it affect children when their own father looks more like their grandfather than their girlfriend's father? "Parents always belong to a different generation," says Dominik Schöbi. In the case of small children, the visual difference is irrelevant anyway. And in puberty it is more of an advantage, because it makes it easier for children to distance themselves from their parents. In middle age, on the other hand, children can feel insecure when their own parents differ from those of their friends. It is important that the parents deal with it calmly.

When puberty and menopause coincide

Due to the larger generation gap, however, the child's puberty and the mother's menopause can coincide. "When mood swings and greater sensitivity occur on both sides, conflicts are programmed," says Perrig-Chiello. "Because in puberty, children need guidance, reliability and a zest for life." The relationship should not be reversed. If late parents reach their nerve limits too quickly, this inevitably affects their children.

The problem of the «resource» grandparents

Women and men who become parents late are often in a sandwich position. When Simone Meyer commuted back and forth several times a week last year to support her father with cancer, she reached her limits. “Sometimes she got angry with little things. We noticed that she was more stressed and that she was pressed for time. The triple burden - work, us children and the grandfather - was palpable, ”recalls her daughter Juna.

If grandparents are already retired when their grandchildren are born, they have more time, but they can no longer relieve their adult children for as long. The resource grandparents are of great importance in Switzerland, because according to the FSO, in 42 percent of cases they are mainly responsible for the care work. Susanne Wüthrich: “My father is already 83 and my mother is 76, both of them need our help now. Unfortunately, they will no longer see their grandchildren start their training. My parents were late parents for their time, so the problem multiplies with us. "

In some cases, the children no longer see their grandparents at all. “This means they lose the chance to get to know their parents from a different perspective, because the grandparents are the family memory,” says Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello. “There are photos of my older siblings with their grandparents during the school holidays,” says Juna. “I'm a little jealous of that. My brother and I only visited them on weekends. " In addition, grandparents often have a balancing effect, have time and patience, provide additional stimulation, donate a feeling of security and are a central point of contact for all relatives to get together.

"Late children quickly view their parents' health with a certain concern," says Dominik Schöbi. Having to deal with their impermanence as early as puberty is stressful. Juna, the 11-year-old daughter of André Notter, 64, says: «If my father dies at 90, I would only be 37. When his mother died at 93, he was 60, which I would prefer. But I hope he stays healthy. " A child should have the freedom to be a child, without worries and fear of loss, demands Pasqualina Perrig-Chiello.

The transience of family happiness

With parents over 40 it could happen that the children as 25-year-olds have a mother or a father with dementia. “Whether it is possible to have parents later on should therefore also be a psychological question,” says the Bernese psychotherapist. For some children it could mean losing a parent in their late teens.

The ability to give love and closeness to one's own children is independent of age.

But the parent's perspective is not an easy one either: "I don't know how much life I'll share with my children and what else I can experience from them," says Susanne Wüthrich. “Those are hard facts. All other aspects of late parenthood weren't severe enough for me to influence my decision. I want to be there for my children as long as possible, so I move around a lot and eat very consciously. " This health awareness is quite typical for late parents, says Dominik Schöbi.

"Since biological limits limit late parenthood, the average age for starting a family will probably level off around 30, only the decimal places can vary," says sociologist Bettina Isengard. From their point of view, the age at which to start a family is an individual decision between two people, which they make after weighing up the costs and benefits.

The cliché of the perfect time

The fact that there is the right time for a child is a cliché. It's not about playing young parents off against older parents. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The ability to give love and closeness to one's own children is independent of age. “There are advantages for children of later parents, but they are moderate. Apart from the biological risks, there are no indications of any significant disadvantages, ”emphasizes Dominik Schöbi, referring to the current study situation. And the age of the parents should not be viewed in isolation as a parenting factor; it is not relevant enough for that.

With parents over 40 it can happen that the children as 25 years old have a mother or a father with dementia.

"Prospective parents should, however, be aware of the critical aspects of mature parenthood," says Perrig-Chiello, "and act in the interests of the child." Everyone has to ask themselves: where do I stand when my child is ten years old, where when it is twenty? In individual cases, however, there is no guarantee that younger parents will be able to accompany their children into old age.

A weighing of costs and benefits

"It is crucial that both partners have thought about when to start a family and are in agreement," adds Dominik Schöbi. Simone Meyer: “Apart from the biological limits, the right time to start a family depends on the individual life path. Looking back, I have to realize that life cannot be planned, but unpredictable.If everyone waited for the ideal point in time when everything was stable in their life, then humanity would already have died out. You can never foresee everything. "

Read more from the "Late Parents" dossier:

  • "The joy outweighs all the burdensome aspects"
    Simone Meyer, 48, and André Notter, 64, both have children from their first marriage. Their children, Melvin and Juna, are 13 and 11 years old. Meanwhile Simone and André also live separately from each other.
  • "My mother has a hard time with some youthful expressions"
    Juna Meyer, 11, lives with her brother Melvin with their mother Simone, 48. They spend every second weekend with their father André, who is retiring this year.

  • "Some of our friends and acquaintances are already grandparents"
    Susanne Wüthrich, 44, met her husband Daniel, 51, late. She now has three children with him, Noel, 7, Anna, 4, and Emilie, 2.