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Last Chance Kids : Are Children Born to Older Parents Better Off? The Kids Themselves Aren't So Sure, Says a New Book

July 20, 1988|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

After 22 separate, one- to five-hour interviews with men and women aged 17 to 54 (all Americans reared in six different states save for one who grew up in Britain), Morris found her subjects almost evenly divided on the issue. Half the "late babies" found the experience positive or unaffecting; the other half said their parents' ages "affected their lives deeply and usually negatively."

And when Morris asked her subjects if they would choose to have children at relatively advanced ages or would recommend late-parenting to their friends, only two wholeheartedly endorsed the practice.

Morris, a London native and now a Hollywood resident and U.S. citizen, is in her 50s and had her own children in her 20s and early 30s. She is careful neither to recommend nor condemn late-parenting. "If they want to have children, who am I to say what they should do? People must do what they must do, but they should be aware of the (possible) disadvantages to the child," she said.

The most often cited disadvantage of the now-adult late-children, Morris said, also was the least serious. Her subjects repeatedly told her that as children and teen-agers they were embarrassed their parents looked so old, so different from the parents of their peers.

The next, most-cited disadvantage was extremely serious: "The (children's) fear that they would have to be responsible for their aging, ailing parents while they were still young."

Other disadvantages the subjects described included having parents unwilling or unable to participate in sports (a frequent sore-spot with men surveyed), having parents who were more likely to die when they were still young, and experiencing a "double generation gap" between themselves and their parents.

More Settled Parents

On the plus side, the children most often cited the advantage of having parents who were more settled financially and emotionally. Some subjects also perceived that their older parents were wiser and more patient than younger parents. And a few of the interviewees also believed their parents' marriages to be more stable than those of younger parents.

Morris, who has recently discussed her research on television talk shows and radio call-in programs, conceded her research is unsettling to many of today's older parents. They typically tell her that the advantages they offer their children far outweigh any disadvantages.

"What they say is that things are different now," she said. "We eat better. We exercise. They really think they're going to live forever."

Morris also said that some older parents react defensively when they encounter her findings. "Some people will not really read what you write," she lamented. "They see only the part that upsets them. I've had numerous people write and say that older people can be better parents, which may be perfectly true. I never deny that. . . . My contention is that parents and would-be parents . . . should acknowledge there may be problems for their children and should be prepared for them."

In the academic world, the reaction to "Last-Chance Children" has been mixed. Ed Zigler, Sterling professor of psychology at Yale University and the founder of the Head Start program for disadvantaged preschoolers, described Morris' findings as making "good sense."

But he cautioned, as does Morris, against stereotyping older parents on the basis of age. "The fact is some older parents stay young until they're 85, some are middle-aged by the time they're 25," he said. "But by and large, I'm rather impressed with what she's done. She has much too small a sample to draw any conclusions, but she knows that. What you lose in numbers, you make up in depth."

Counsels Children, Families

Patrick Bezdek, an assistant clinical professor of child psychiatry at UCLA who also counsels children and families in his Century City practice, has heard some of Morris' observations before. "I've had a number of (patients) not necessarily complain, but say how hard it was for them having parents who were older," he said.

But he emphasized that older people can be energetic parents who have little difficulty understanding and empathizing with their children. And he reported that older parents are becoming the norm in some circles. "The more successful people are, the more likely they are to postpone childbearing. Most of the people in my son's class at a private Westside elementary school have parents who are older," Bezdek said.

Elaine Gordon, a Santa Monica developmental psychologist who specializes in fertility and alternative-parenting options, noted that today's older parents are hardly the same as those a generation or two ago.

"We do live longer nowadays. An older parent of 20 years ago is not what an older parent is today," said Gordon, who with her clinical psychologist husband, Edwin Greenberg, adopted a daughter 3 1/2 years ago when she was 38 and he was 46.

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