Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Observations on being an older parent

My first child was born three months after I turned fifty, my second a month after my fifty-fifth birthday. I often wonder how much of a difference this makes in what kind of daddy I am. My children came into my life at precisely the time I had given up on the idea that this would ever happen for me. I've noticed that life is often like that.

One discovery I made right off is that changing diapers is no big deal. It seems awfully disgusting when you don't have kids, but when you do it's just part of the daily drill.

We did get lucky in that neither of our kids were colicy KNOCK WOOD HARD. When our boy was a baby he started sleeping through the night at about three months. We were told that people we didn't even know envied us. I think he had one of those all-night crying sessions maybe twice. Some parents have to live through these every night for months. Our baby girl is sometimes fussy and hard to put down at night, but then she sleeps a lot during the day leaving at least one of us free to nap in the afternoon. My wife is convinced this is because of breast feeding and I think she's right.

One thing about being an older dad is, I don't think I sweat the small stuff as much as I might have when younger. I do sometimes get mad as hell when that stubborn little Polack-Okie (a really stubborn combination, believe me) puts me on "ignore" or decides to be defiant, but then given the combined heredity of my wife and myself, I never really expected anything different. It's going to be really interesting to see that heredity expressed in a girl.

I really worry about all the dangers and bad influences that weren't around when I was a kid. Everybody argues about the effect of TV on kids of course. I had always been a skeptic about the alleged violent effects, but now I'm not so sure. Though I remain a libertarian on the subject of censorship, when the kid imitates little Stewie from Family Guy and says "I'm going to kill you mother!" it gives one pause. We restrict what he watches and we don't even turn on South Park when he's up, as much as we like it ourselves.

Fortunately, my wife takes the attitude of "What's wrong with saying NO?" She also has no problem deciding when he's had enough TV and and it's time to send him outside. I kind of suspect that she's a bit contemptuous of American mothers who can't bear to stand their ground against their kids whining and demanding.

A problem I've noticed with TV these days is not that there's not much good on (like in my day) but there's too much that's good on. With cable at any given time you can find something worthwhile to watch: cable news, classic movies, science and nature shows, history etc. Becoming a couch potato is easier than ever.

The weight of experience and the verdict of scientific study seem to be in. Children of broken families are astronomically more likely to be significantly screwed up in ways that affect their chances for success and happiness in life than children of intact families. The fact that we had to screw up a significant fraction of a generation of kids to confirm this common sensical observation makes one wonder about our notions of "social progress".

It's not like my generation was uniquely dumb about raising kids or my parents generation especially virtuous. Back in their time "child development experts" were divided into two opposite but equally insane theories of child rearing, Progressive and Behaviorism. And then there was the medical admonition to lay children to sleep on their stomachs, as opposed to traditional practice. Oops! Turns out kids laid on their tummies have higher rates of crib death. Sorry.

It took a shrink named Abraham Maslow to point out that while children need love, they also need discipline. And, here's the important part, if they do not get discipline they will perceive themselves as being unloved. Discipline is about setting limits and boundaries, and a universe without boundaries is terrifying for a child - and not too comfortable for an adult for that matter.

What my generation invented was "finding oneself", followed by "following your bliss". "Wow, like hey Man, this parenthood stuff isn't my thing after all. Like write me when the kids are grown. See ya." My father's generation were expected to stick around and pay for the groceries or face social opprobrium. A lot of them got married and had kids because it was expected of them, even though they might have been tempermentally unsuited for it. That wasn't regarded as an excuse for abandoning ones responsibilities to helpless children.

We do agonize more than a little bit about how to discipline. Whether to spank and for what for example. Or what to let the kids know about our own wild youth later on. Now that's a toughy! What about booze, smoking (whatever) etc? I dunno, haven't gotten there yet and won't for a while. Sex - I want to hide under the bed about that one and I suspect I'm going to want a double standard about it.

Recently I had a conversation with a colleague my age who has five pre-teen kids. At one point I remarked, "Sometimes all I think I can do for my kids is just to make sure they have two parents who love each other and love them." He replied, "Sometimes that's all you can do. But sometimes it's enough."


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