The saying “Small children, small problems; big children, big problems” will resonate with many who have completed the child-rearing circuit, only to find there is no finishing line in parental worry as their off-spring negotiate adulthood.
No matter what stage of parenting you’re at, there will always be somebody further down the road who will delight in saying, “if you think it’s tough now, just wait until they are toddlers/tweens/teenagers/delinquent adults” (delete as appropriate).
Every age brings joys and challenges, but is there one phase of parenting when it is generally most enjoyable? If so, it would be good for parents to know that – in case they miss it.
However, perhaps it can only be recognised in hindsight – or is that our selective memory playing tricks? When the gaze of devotion in your child’s eyes for the wonderful being you are progresses to a look of teenage disdain for your stupidity, it is hard not to get misty-eyed about the past.
Life and business coach Allen O'Donoghue, co-director of Help Me to Parent, takes a deep breath before he sticks his neck out on what might be the easiest age of parenting.
“Generally, in my experience, when children are aged about eight to 10, the intensity eases a little for lots of parents,” he ventures, acknowledging that those in the throes of this stage may be queuing up to disagree.
“They are old enough to go outside on their own and play with their friends on the road; they don’t need to be constantly looked after, but they haven’t yet started to go outside the physical field of where they live – in that they haven’t started going off down town with friends.”
He believes for a lot of parents, this is the “where-I-catch-my-breath” moment before the teenage years. As the father of two children aged eight and 12 himself, it’s not a professional opinion devoid of first-hand experience.
However, he also sees this relatively benign period changing in nature, as more children are given smartphones before they reach the years of double digits.
“That is having an impact because they are accessing the world,” he suggests. No longer can you just switch off the TV or radio news to try to spare them from some of the worst things that are happening in the world. Yet, their lack of maturity means it is very hard for them to process what’s they are seeing and hearing.
“I think that is one of the reasons we are seeing pre-teens and teens developing more anxiety,” he says. “They are seeing all this stuff and find it very difficult to deal with it and understand the logic behind it.”
Researchers in the US concluded that age 12-14 was the most challenging time
One contributor to the US lifestyle website Popsugar, suggests you’re in the golden age of parenting when you don’t have the 3 “Ds” in your child’s life. However, that’s a colloquial theory because those “Ds” are “diapers”, “dating” and “driving”. Bear in mind, too, that in some US states, people are allowed to start learning to drive from as young as 14 and a half (eek!), while in many they can have a full licence from 16.
But we get the drift, and could add a particularly troublesome "D" this side of the Atlantic – drinking. Yet, encompassing the tween and early teenage years in this so-called "golden age" is probably stretching it. Indeed, researchers at Arizona State University concluded that age 12 to 14 was the most challenging time, after surveying 2,000-plus "well-educated" mothers.
That short period, between being out of nappies and before they start school, is the best and easiest time, reckons Deborah Fogarty of Bray, Co Wicklow, who is mother to two teenagers, Chloe (17), Evan (14) and five-year-old Olivia.
“It’s when you can finally leave the house without a survival kit and before outside forces start to influence them,” she says. “They still think everything you say is gospel – before they discover the internet especially!
With a child of that age, if you are a stay-at-home-parent, you can just head off for the day to the beach or the park and usually find them fairly empty because everyone else is at work or school.
In contrast, she thinks the worst stage has to be when they start to get their own social life.
“Lying awake at 3.30am waiting for a 17-year-old to come back from a party is definitely not the best New Year’s Eve I’ve ever had.”
However, of course every age is special, she points out, and having a nine-year gap between her second and third child gives her an appreciation of every stage, “especially when you know that’s your last. Even the all-night feeding that I thought I would never survive on the first, didn’t seem so bad on number three.”
While some parents rhapsodise over the newborn days, it's understandable why parents of twins might not. French-born Marianne Cassidy, who is raising two sets of twins in Co Kildare, admits she and her husband Michael remember very little of the year they became parents of four children under two-and-a-half.
“I think that’s what sleep deprivation does to you,” she laughs.
Each age brings its own pleasures and challenges, so it is hard to say when was the best so far
However, the dates on which both Felix and Eloise, now aged nine, and then Judith and Celeste, now aged seven, slept through the night for the first time – well, for six hours straight – are seared into her memory. And since the younger pair began to settle into a routine coming up to three months old, family life has become increasingly easier and more enjoyable, she says.
“Each age brings its own pleasures and challenges, so it is hard to say when was the best so far. As they become more independent and are becoming full of chats, you get to discover their personalities – and tempers – and how they relate to you, their twins, their other siblings and the rest of the world.”
As parents of twins, there are a few milestones that are particularly tough on the double but, once passed, give a great sense of achievement, she says. The first was the full night’s sleep; after that came potty-training and then teaching them to ride bikes without stabilisers.
Now Marianne is basking in the glow of the four of them being able to put their own socks on and completely dress themselves – albeit not always in colour-coordinated or seasonally-appropriate clothes.
This means, she adds, that they can “get up and go in the morning to enjoy time together, rather than run and wrestle with toddlers to put basic garments on”.
Perhaps this is their golden age – only time will tell.
‘I LOVE THE TODDLER YEARS’
There is so much more to toddlers than strops in the middle of a supermarket aisle, says Jen Hogan, author of The Real Mum's Guide to Surviving Parenthood, as she nominates this to be the most enjoyable stage for her – even if "it's definitely not the easiest".
As a Dublin mother of seven children – Chloe (16), Adam (13), Jamie (11), Luke (9), Zach (7), Tobey (4) and Noah (2) – there’s no lack of experience behind her championing of a time too often dismissed as “the terrible twos”.
“Unlike babies, toddlers can be great company – demanding company but great company nonetheless. I love hearing toddlers speak and the funny way they articulate their understanding and associations with just a few words.”
She finds their enthusiasm for the most mundane things contagious. “Take a toddler for a walk and they’ll stop to admire the different coloured leaves on the path, a plane flying overhead or a crane in the distance – unfortunately though, dog poo seems to hold equal fascination.”
Then there’s fact that you are the centre of their universe and they’ll happily let you know it, several times a day. There are very few forces beyond their parents at play in their lives.
“You’re not yet worrying about how they’re getting on at school or the influence of their peers. There’s no pressure for brands or expensive gadgets. They want you – just as you are.”
As her and her husband Paul’s family has grown, she has enjoyed the toddler years more each time. “I think it’s because I’ve had some insights into how things change further down the road so, rather than adopting the mantra ‘this too shall pass’ to get me through the toddler years, I make sure I make the most of them.”
As long as you have realistic expectations, you can accept the unpredictability that goes hand in hand with toddlers’ curiosity and boundless energy, and also appreciate the fantastic things that come with that age.
Knowing, she adds, that when they go to bed, their toast being cut in the wrong shape was probably the extent of the hardship they experienced that day – and that you can protect them from almost anything – is priceless.
‘UP TO NINE, THEY STILL THINK YOU’RE GREAT’
"I'd say the post-toddler to pre-pre-teen period is the easiest, ie age four to nine," says Adam Brophy, a books editor at Folens and former A Dad's Life columnist with this supplement.
“They’re so nice then. Their personalities are beginning to shine through, the tantrums and total irrationality of toddlerhood has calmed, they’re super keen to get involved and try new things (often at a cost – count the once-used football kits in the wardrobes).
"But most of all, they still think you're great and you know everything. They come to you for help, want to hang out, and actually believe you when you tell them things will be okay," says Brophy, author of The Bad Dad's Survival Guide, that was published in 2009.
Parenting for him and his wife in their Co Cork home is very different now that their two daughters are in their teens.
“We are at the opposite end of the knowledge spectrum – in that we now know nothing. They no longer want to hang out with us, yet we have to be available at a moment’s notice for any crisis that might befall them.
However, “they are still brilliant and formidable”, he stresses. “They are witty and insightful, with the occasional grain of empathy and compassion thrown our way. Not often, mind. Their friends are hilarious and as a group they are utterly self-consumed, as we all were as teens.”
This stage is probably the most terrifying since they were infants, he adds – “but at least you can occasionally sit down and watch a decent movie together”.
‘TEENS: DODGY MOMENTS AND WONDERFUL TIMES’
Children's author Judi Curtin looks back fondly on all aspects of raising her own off-spring, now that the three of them are in their 20s.
“I would happily turn the clock back if I could,” she says. “Maybe not for ever – but for an hour or two!
“Every stage was special in its own way, but without a doubt, the easiest years were from about ages three to 10. At that stage, there were no more nappies, buggies or mashed up food, and the children still thought that their parents were the centre of the universe, founts of constant wisdom.”
She was apprehensive about the teenage years, and “while there were a few dodgy moments, there were also many wonderful times, as I watched my children grow towards adulthood”.
Although her three no longer live at home – two are in London, the other in Dublin – “I still feel very much a parent. I still get calls, ‘Mum . . . ’ and I still worry about them.
“They still would ask my opinion – maybe they are a bit more flexible in how they use what I offer,” she adds. “But that parent-child relationship, that I still have with my parents, continues.”