Spoilt brats No, we older mothers raise children who know they’re truly loved
21:51 GMT, 8 August 2012
When my daughter, Thea, first played the piano in a school concert, she scanned the ranks of proud parents seated in the audience to ensure her dad and I were there.
Thea, who was eight at the time, will never make a concert pianist — the fact that she is deaf will always impede her progress — and to anyone but her family, her small triumph that day would have seemed insignificant.
But to her dad, Peter, and me, our Thea was a star. As she played We Three Kings, we held our breath, and when she made it to the end, note-perfect, and took a shy bow, our eyes were glazed with tears.
Barbara with her daughter Theadora, aged seven months
That concert marked a small milestone for Thea, now 14, and nothing would have induced me to have missed it.
So when Liz Hodgkinson wrote in this paper last week that she had only ever attended one of her sons’ sports days, I was appalled at her selfishness. Liz declared proudly that a single foray on to the touchline had been enough. She vowed never again to ‘waste time’ watching her boys come last in the egg-and-spoon race.
Liz found it irksome and dull to while away a summer afternoon watching her children’s activities. For that I can only pity her. But the real sadness is her children’s. At every school event you can pick them out: the kids vainly searching for mum and dad in the audience, in the hope that, among the sea of faces, a familiar one will smile back at them.
When their mum or dad is not there — when some more pressing event has claimed their attention — you know that child will feel second-best. You do not have to be a helicopter parent — constantly striving to push your children harder — to want to witness their small successes, or even their ignominious failures. Being there is part of the responsibility of parenthood. It is also one of its greatest joys.
It is Liz’s contention, however, that older mothers like me (I’m 53) suffocate our children by lavishing too much attention on them. Liz, who has two sons now in their 40s, believes younger mothers make better parents than those who have their children in their 30s and 40s. Why
Last week's story:
'This trend for older parents is, I fear, creating unhappy, stressed and spoiled children'
Apparently, it is because young mums put themselves first instead of ‘indulging every whim’ of their spoilt offspring.
Moreover, she claims, we late-life mums exhaust ourselves ferrying our children to extra-curricular activities when, if we had any common sense, we’d spoil ourselves instead.
As a mother who came late to parenthood — I was 39 when Thea was born and our second daughter, Izzy, arrived five years later — I could not disagree more vehemently.
Peter, 61, and I did not intend to become middle-aged parents. Although we had rewarding jobs as TV producers with the BBC in Salford, Greater Manchester, we had hoped to have children much earlier — I simply failed to conceive.
So when Theadora arrived in 1998, 14 years into our relationship, we were both surprised and elated. Her name means ‘gift of the gods’; we felt that her arrival was a small miracle. Then Isabella came along and our family was complete.
As new parents who had yearned for children for so many years, we took great delight in our girls. Whenever we had free time, we wanted to spend it with them. We didn’t palm them off in front of the television so we could indulge our grown-up pleasures.
Thea’s unexplained deafness, which was diagnosed when she was nine months old and is not related to us being older parents, presented its own challenges.
Learning sign language and spending hours teaching Thea to speak required endless patience — something which increases with age — while lobbying the nursery and primary school to make sure she got the best possible help demanded authority borne of my years in the workplace.
Our efforts paid off, and Thea now attends one of the best grammar schools in the country. Our focus on the girls’ schooling — something for which we older parents are often criticised — means that TV has always been rationed in our house in favour of more wholesome pursuits.
My children’s young lives have always been circumscribed by boundaries, because it is only by imposing them that we can make sure they feel secure and prosper. Bedtimes are immovable and the girls do not question them.
Temper tantrum Showing love to your child does not turn them into spoiled brats
And, unlike Liz, we have never locked our bedroom door. Frankly, I was disturbed by her admission that she did so in order, presumably, not to be disturbed by her sons. What if there had been an emergency
The model young parents she applauds spend only as much time with their children as they need to, apparently. How, then, she would have detested the holiday we had in the Caribbean three years ago.
All around us were couples in their 20s and 30s, bickering over whose turn it was to look after the children. The parent who got the short straw would slouch off to do his or her duty at the pool with a posse of splashing kids while the other sunbathed.
Conversely, as older parents who have enjoyed years of couple’s holidays, we’ve revelled in the freedom to do just what we wanted. Now we feel it is a blessing to have a family break with our girls.
We enjoy trying new activities with them, which is why we joined them for a bareback horse-ride in St Lucia. The girls still laugh at the thought of their aged and somewhat overweight parents clinging on for dear life. We cherish the memory as one of our happiest.
Although Peter continues to work in TV, I have given up my high-pressure producer’s job to work from our home in Hale, Cheshire, as a journalist. Many parents — especially those who are younger and have yet to fulfil their ambitions — are reluctant to make such sacrifices, but I did not want to forfeit those precious years with my girls.
Perhaps because age has given us the experience and wisdom to assess what is truly important in life, we mature parents do not yearn for the freedom to pursue hedonistic lifestyles. Our family is now the hub of our lives.
This is something that the ever-growing list of celebrities who have had babies in their 40s — Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman and Emma Thompson among them — must have discovered.
I hope that my daughters will value the time I spent with them as children. I know I will. I find it hard to believe, therefore, that Liz’s son, Tom — who has written a book called The Idle Parent — is now advocating the laissez faire attitude to parenting his own mother adopted.
Liz considers it a ‘rare compliment’ that he said: ‘I think my parents did it well. They were so busy with their jobs that my brother and I were ignored.’
How extraordinary that her son should consider it worthy of congratulation that his parents had such scant regard for him and his brother that they virtually dispensed with the whole bothersome business of raising them.
Peter and I actively encourage our girls to engage and converse with us. We hope they’ll draw on the experience age has given us. And equally, we feel younger when we’re with them.
I remember, on a flight back from a recent holiday, a small child behind us prattling on to her utterly unresponsive young parents for hours.
I wanted to implore her mother to listen to her, to let her know she was interesting — to give her a moment’s attention before telling her it was time for sleep.
She needed to be told. She desperately needed rules and routine. And that is the sort of discipline I believe so many selfish young parents are overlooking these days.
I see them meeting for coffee, engrossed in idle chatter, oblivious to their children, who are rampaging around, as adults with scalding drinks weave between them. At our age we are more alert to dangers, but this does not mean we cosset our children.
To be honest, like many older parents, we’re just so immensely glad to be a family now that we don’t want to take any chances with our children — or miss a single second with them.