benefits of earlier parenting

November 8, 2009

As someone who had kids fairly late in life, I have had the advantage of more stability in many ways (social, mental and financial!) which hopefully has given my kids some benefit as I’m more mature as a mother than I would have been 10 years earlier. I observe this trend of later motherhood and for many people like me it turns out fine in the end, but not for all. However, there is a part of me that believes this is not the natural or most ideal state of affairs, that maybe humans as a species are actually designed in many different ways to reproduce earlier. Here’s why.

The biological side is obvious, there is the obvious problem with declining fertility in males and females. All the infertility experts urge us to start earlier. There is a greater risk of pregnancy complications, birth defects, miscarriage, just about any problem. Older mothers have less energy to stay up all night and run around after the little ones.

What about the psychological or emotional side? I’m really only referring to Western society here, and I am still considering this theory so it’s a work in progress, bear with me. Younger adults or adolescents have different brains, which become “adult” in structure only at around 25. Young people are highly social and connected, concerned with forming their identity. Sometimes they  are more impulsive, flexible, risk-takers with a lack of empathy and a sense of invincibility. They are also highly social. All this is now confirmed with brain research that shows our brain connections are not fully established until the mid-20s.

If child-rearing was to occur in the teens or early 20’s , psychologically parents would be more flexible, able to cope with chaotic baby behaviour without too much need to impose an artificial routine. The highly social nature of teenagers is also adaptive because a social environment is necessary or extremely preferable for children. The effect of having a baby is (for most people) to increase empathy or the ability to put another’s needs before your own. So I think the benefit of early parenting (for the parent) would be actually to help emotional development, at a critical time of development, onto a more productive and cooperative path. We know from psychology that cooperativeness is a great character strength which leads to positive health outcomes (There are other parts of this theory that don’t work like impulsivity & invincibility, so I am working on those)

Socially, having children earlier would have benefits for the extended family. Grandparents would be younger, and could therefore support parents more, rather than having children when one’s own parents are very old and may require care themselves. Having children earlier would mean that they were able to help the parents to care for their own grandparents in old age.

I would see all this as having a benefit for babies in terms of attachment. A more highly supported social network for the mother may lead to a secure baby. Of course a theory like this can’t be universal and I guess there are down sides to this as well.

Why is parenting delayed? These days, largely because of financial expectations we expect to establish careers and do a lot of intellectual work (at least in the West) in our teens and 20s – to get into a reasonable financial position before we have the children. However this kind of career focus requires the maturity of a more adult brain, and in some ways it would be better to wait until over 25 when we may have more capacity for self-knowledge to choose an appropriate career path, wisdom to make responsible decisions for society and the persistence or discipline required for a complex workplace.

The other reason is relationships. People in their 20s now have the cultural expectation of transient relationships, often based on pleasure and self gratification, multiple relationships in order to find the best fit “try before you buy” without expectation of commitment or care of the other. We also expect to have “fun” and leisure before settling down to the “hard slog” of parenting, but I’ll get to that later. I think there is some evidence that this approach to relationships might be damaging. We know that broken relationships can be a grief event, and some of the most traumatic experiences from a psychological, mental health point of view – leading to depression, suicide and insecurity. By practicing serial monogomy or low-commitment and low-care relationships we are actually un-learning the art of real relationship by practising uncaring behaviours. This is actually bad for us in the long run, and sometimes it takes a long time to catch up and heal from the wounds of multiple relationship losses.

Anyway, that’s about all for this theory for today – as I said it’s a work in progress and so it could probably use some references, but this blog is just about ideas, not necessarily references!

Adios for today.


One Response to “benefits of earlier parenting”

  1. Geoff Broughton Says:

    Sonia – there are some really great ideas flowing here – there are at least 3 journal articles in this one post alone… definitely time for a catch-up over coffee!

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