Washington Post

Good . . . Old Dad

By Charles Downey
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate
Washington Post
Tuesday, June 6, 2000; C04

A 6-year-old boy wandered around at a house party in Washington, sized up a few men and then looked up at each one and asked each of them a question. When the hostess got a little closer, she heard the boy ask one thirtyish guest if he was a daddy.

"Why, yes I am," the man replied. "I have a little guy just about your age." "Oh, goody. Will you throw me in the air?" asked the boy.

That boy has a healthy, caring father and is not attention-deprived. It's just that the boy's father is 61 and has been having trouble with a bad back, depriving his son of those delightful skyward tosses and other rough-housing.

Built to Last

Nature has designed the species so that human males can become fathers until they reach very old age: Actors James Earl Jones, Tony Randall and Anthony Quinn, television talk-show host Larry King and former Secretary of State James Baker are examples of men who have become fathers after their 60th birthdays.

With what now is known about fitness and nutrition, 50 has become what 40 used to be. And many more midlife men are marrying women in their thirties, some of whom want to start families. So the 50-something grooms become what sociologists know as a "recycled father," a man who already has grown children but starts another family in his middle years.

Second Time Around

Ross Parke, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, is 61 and has five adult children. He also has an 8-year-old son. "Something that is true among virtually all midlife fathers is that, at this stage of life, we have more time and patience than when we first became fathers," says Parke, author of "Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers That Keep Men from Being the Fathers They Want to Be."

"In my case, when I was in my twenties and had toddlers around the house, I was extremely busy forging my career and traveling to give lectures," he explains. "I just didn't spend that much time with my five children."

Parke had no real role models for learning about involved parenting. When he was growing up in the 1940s, nobody expected fathers to be involved in child raising. It was enough for dad to "bring home the bacon" and occasionally lower his newspaper to give his unruly youngsters a stern glance.

But the second time around, recycled fathers are more established, financially secure and less preoccupied with slaying their personal and professional dragons. Thus, most midlife dads are ready, willing and able to spend more quality time with their children.

Conflicts with the grown children can arise: "The amount of time spent in childhood with the 'new family' can become a real issue with those fathers' grown children," says Constance R. Ahrons, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and co-director of the Council on Contemporary Families.

Although they may score lower on child tossing and roughhousing, midlife men tend to have decades of experience--albeit from a distance sometimes--on which to draw for raising children the second time around. William Pollack of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., says: "The older the parent, the more nurturing, laid-back, flexible and supportive he is."

Parke agrees. "There is an interesting phenomenon in the psychology of aging," he says. "In general, as women get older, they become more instrumental and task-oriented. As men get older, they become more nurturing. Witness the man who was a stern parent turn into an old softy around his grandkids."

While more midlife men are staying physically fit, they nonetheless experience some decline in energies, engaging in fewer of the robust activities that youngsters find so delightful.

"A midlife man's physical energy naturally declines, so he won't enjoy playing with his kids as much as a father in his twenties or thirties," says Parke. "But his intellectual level is still high enough to more than make up for the difference. Midlife fathers will spend more time doing sedentary things with their children that often involve cognitive skills."

Parke, who admits to playing tag with his son every few days, once surveyed 300 fathers in their twenties and thirties, and found that as their energy levels declined, they spent less time all-around with their children.

"Basically, the essentials of being a good parent are the same, regardless of age--being responsive and nurturing to the child and remaining aware of his or her needs," says Parke. "Being a midlife father is nothing like being a grandparent who drops in and out of the child's life from time to time."

Moving Forward

To deal with grown children who might raise their eyebrows about a father who is making the most serious commitment possible with a woman not much older than themselves, Parke says, he continues to mix his new family with his old.

"Children have different needs at different ages," he says. "I take my younger child to visit the older ones and help the older ones with their particular problems. Maybe they need a down payment for a car, advice about a career or relationship or housing matters. We try to go forward, instead of dwelling on what they did not get when they were 4 or 5."

(c) Charles Downey
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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