On Ageism Against Children

Every so often we get a rousing fire alarm blaring in the middle of the night.  On most accounts, the smoke is coming from a neighbor who frequently gets the late might “munchies”, pops some cookie dough into the oven, and then gets, well, a wee bit distracted, forgetting about said cookies until they are charcoal, the hall fills with smoke, and the rest of us have to run outside half naked.  On one of these nights, I noted that my neighbor down the hall had not come out and I asked the fire fighters to go check on her.  Another neighbor asked, “We know it’s not a real fire.  Why are you so worried about X?”

“Because she’s OLD!”  I responded, not pausing to think of a more politically correct response.

My neighbor, the spry one questioning me, she who had been awake when the fire alarm went off because she is a perpetual night owl, shocked me by responding that indeed SHE was actually older that X.


Ageism.  It sneaks up on even the best of us.  I assumed that because X was older that she might not have heard the alarm or been able to get down the stairs.  The reality, I learned from my neighbor, is that X was so annoyed with the repeated marijuana-induced alarms that she chose to stay inside.  Furthermore, I assumed that because my neighbor is so energetic that she must be much younger than X.

There is another side to ageism that I find our family facing more and more these days: assumptions about children based solely upon age.

The most distressing occurrence of this wounded my youngest to the core.  She had just turned six and, after years of watching videos of births and surgical procedures and forcing asking me to read to her from various medical manuals, she was very excited to experience the Human Patient Simulator at The Museum of Science and Industry, an exhibit that allows museum patrons to take the vitals of a robotic patient.  The MSI website cited 12 as the “suggested” age, but did not specify a required age minimum.

When we got to the exhibit (first in line) the docent told us that she was too young to enter because the material would be “too disturbing”.  I asked what the patrons would see and he said they would take vital signs of the robot.  “So, temperature and blood pressure?  Why is that so disturbing?”  I asked.  He responded that they would discuss heart attacks and other maladies and that children under 12 cannot handle such information.

I relayed to him my youngest’s interests and offered a basic overview of what she had already read and seen.  I let him know that her father and I felt completely comfortable with her exposure to the topics covered and that her father would accompany her into the exhibit.   Nope.  No go.  The “policy” (on the website, it is a “recommendation”) is apparently firm on this.  She would have to wait 6 more years to try out Stan, the Human Patient Simulator.

Blueberry, as I sometimes call her here on this blog, was crushed.  Like juice.  Blueberry juice.  Her ensuing dissolution into fervent tears no doubt convinced the docent that the age rules were good ones.  Surely, if she could not handle hearing “no”, she could not handle hearing about gross bodily functions.   It was this experience that prompted Blueberry to request a science tutor who is a pre-med student.  A few months later, the same child who was not allowed into the exhibit to take a robot’s vitals was practicing sutures on a chicken.

Sutures on chicken

The ageism doesn’t stop at what a child cannot do either.  People and institutions frequently make assumptions about what a child should be able to do by a certain age as well.  Children, for example,  are expected to tie their shoes on their own by 5 or 6 years of age.  Really?  My son mastered the tying of his shoes around late 7/early 8.  He could change batteries in his toys at 22 months, even though he’d only been exposed to electricity for a short time; he could skillfully saw through a piece of wood when he was 5.  Still, there were some who were concerned that he could not tie his shoes when he was 6.

I finally stopped consulting a highly touted guide in the homeschooling community because I was tired of comparing my kids to the usually random expectations spelled out in the book.  Can you imagine if we had a guidebook of expectations for adults?  “Oh, you are 37?  So, you should be able to conjugate Latin verbs then?  Soon you’ll be 38, the age at which you will be able to explain the roots of the conflict in the Middle East.”

It just doesn’t make sense.  My eldest is much better at multiplication than addition.  According to the guidebook she is 3 years behind in addition and 3 years ahead in multiplication.  What am I supposed to do with that information?

We also encounter (on nearly a weekly basis) people testing our kids to make sure they comply with the educational standards of their age.  That my eldest had read, absorbed, and could re-tell two of the rather sophisticated and intricate books by Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea, the adult version, and Stones Into Schools) in the fall did not matter to the person who was appalled when she failed his verbal state capitols test.

The final piece of ageism towards children that we have encountered is the phenomenon of discounting the opinions, and even presence, of a person simply because they are young in age.  One person we know literally starts talking when our children are trying to talk — even if they are trying to talk to him.  He booms his rather cacophonous voice right over their voices, drowning them out entirely, without regard for the importance of their words.  What is that?  He doesn’t do it to adults when they are speaking.

Age should not be an indicator of a child’s ability or deserved respect any more than height should be an indicator of an adult’s age.  Some two year olds talk; some don’t.  Some 5 year olds tell time; some don’t. Some 50 year olds run marathons; some don’t.  You get the idea.

3 Responses to On Ageism Against Children

  1. I can so relate to you on this, especially on the children.
    I still am whisked back in time to a more simple day when we were breaking into the little theater to drink beers or some other place, yet I guess we eventually had to grow up. I still learn something new every day with my children. They are in fact my greates accomplishment and my most profound instructors.