If you're planning on having children, but are waiting until later in life to get started, you've probably already been deluged with cautionary tales about the alleged hazards of putting off childbearing: stories of older women who had difficulty conceiving, were subject to greater health risk throughout their pregnancy, or ended up not being able to conceive at all. So here's some welcome news for any woman who just doesn't want to think "baby" till her mid-30s or later: New research out of Denmark indicates that having your first child at a later age can raise the odds that you'll be a calm, level-headed parent. Though it's not an enormous study, it does show that, contrary to the media narrative that says having kids when you're older is always a mistake, delaying childbearing until you're ready offers some benefits, too. (Feel free to print this article out and hand it to your parents the next time they ask you if you're "planning on settling down any time soon.")
In most countries, average maternal age is gradually increasing, and as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted, the numbers have risen in just the last two decades. The average age at which an American women had her first children was 24.9 years in 2000; by 2014, it had risen to 26.3 years. There are a lot of reasons for this — women's increasing role in the workforce, greater acceptance of child care roles for men, medical advances in fertility treatment, and higher education in women are all contributing factors. This news is often accompanied by the aforementioned articles that stress only the potential downsides to having kids at a more advanced age. But this new study joins a growing body of research that shows that waiting until later on to have kids offers some bonuses, as well.
Of course, none of this is to say that all older moms are phenomenal parents, or that all younger moms don't know what they're doing — far from it. Excellent parents come from every age group and background. But considering how frequently we encounter negative information about women who have children later in life, it's great to hear some positive information, too.
Older Moms May Punish Their Kids Less Often
The study itself, which was conducted by Aarhus University, took a random sample of 4741 mothers across Denmark, and looked at their children as they turned 7, 11 and 15. They also interviewed the mothers on how they punished their children for misbehavior (or used "sanctions," in the terms of the study).
The scientists found that older mothers were much less likely to use verbal or physical sanctions on their children than younger mothers — possibly because they'd learned to control their kids' behavior using other types of discipline.
But that wasn't the end of it. They also looked at the children and whether or not they exhibited behavioral or social problems, and discovered those with older mothers often fared a bit better than their peers.
In other words, overall, older mothers punish their kids less often, and their offspring were often better adjusted to the world and to interactions with others. (Whether or not the two things are connected isn't clear, and isn't something the study was trying to figure out.)
Interestingly, the benefits of having an older mother declined a bit as the kids reached their teen years. When they turned 15, they were just as likely as those with younger mothers to have emotional and behavioral issues. This is to be expected, though: adolescence is a turbulent time for even the most supported and even-keeled kid.
Intriguingly, even when the scientists removed factors like maternal education and wealth (both of which tend to contribute to decisions to have babies later), the age-related benefits were still there. This would seem to imply that those benefits are a product of a mother's age alone, rather than the things that lead many women to choose later childbearing, from getting an advanced degree to focusing on career.
Life Experience Is An Asset When It Comes To Parenting
There are, the scientists suggested, a few reasons that older mothers might be better at keeping their cool with their kids.
One of the biggest factors, they said, was "psychological maturity": just by virtue of having been alive longer, older moms benefit from greater life experience, having faced and defeated numerous challenges, and developed what the scientists called the increased "mental flexibility" of age.
Parents in their mid-to late 30s may not only be less likely to punish, but also more effective in other ways of controlling and channelling child behavior — because they're better at tolerating tantrums and setting good boundaries. Empathy, which also may develop as we mature, might factor in this, too: a comparison of adolescent moms and older ones found that the teens were less empathetic towards their kids in the first 12 months.
And there's also the fact that, despite medical advances, some older mothers may have had to fight particularly hard to have a healthy pregnancy, which can have domino effects on their treatment of their children. (This isn't a guaranteed connection, though; people who've previously experienced miscarriages often report parenting issues with their other children, for instance. And just because a child was difficult to conceive doesn't mean they'll be raised in a supportive or caring home.)
This research doesn't mean that all women who want to become moms should wait to have kids, of course; rather, it shows that there are both drawbacks and benefits to having kids at every different stage of life. This information can help us make informed choices in our own lives — and understand the value in having kids when you know the time is right, rather than at the time your parents, the media, or your nosiest Facebook friend thinks is right.