C is for “Can we prevent these from taking hold in children?”
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught from year to year, It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear — You’ve got to be carefully taught!
–– from the musical South Pacific’s song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”
In 1949, when Oscar Hammerstein II wrote these words set to Richard Rodgers’ music, both men knew that they were opening up a Pandora’s box of unprecedented self-scrutiny in American culture regarding the issue of racism.
Today, American society is still struggling to come to terms with ongoing racial strife, which explains the endurance of this song. But these lyrics also reflect the childhood root of other forms of discrimination: sexism, ableism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia…and, yes, ageism.
Like all forms of discrimination, ageism starts in the mind with faulty, fear-based perceptions. When these prejudicial thoughts aren’t checked, they can soon turn outward into bigoted behaviors that harm the lives of the people victimized by those perceptions.
No child is born being ageist. Like all prejudices, ageism is an acquired belief, and research has shown that it can begin to take root in children as young as three years old.
There are many ways in which this can happen.
To begin with, the first influence on any child’s life starts within the family. When a young child’s parents and other relatives and caregivers exhibit ageist behavior in the forms of showing negative facial expressions, using negative words, or even physically moving a child away from an old person, that child picks up those unconscious messages. Researchers have even found that many young children prefer to see pictures of younger adults over those of much older ones.
Another factor is whether a child has regular, positive contact with an old person, such as a grandparent. In fact, as one study remarks, “…children’s views of older people did not correlate with their parent’s views but were significantly more positive in children who spontaneously evoked their grandparents when asked to think of an old person.”
Unfortunately, in our society, many children don’t have access to such realistic and positive role models because they lack grandparents either through death or through a physical or emotional distance created or supported by their parents. And that’s where a third factor comes into play: the cultural indoctrination of ageism via fairy tales, TV shows, movies, and commercial ads. Think about it: How many of us were exposed as kids to picture-book stories and TV cartoons about mean, dangerous –– and old –– wicked witches and evil kings? Today’s children also watch movies and TV shows that mock old characters who are feeble, clueless, cranky, and/or stubborn.
And there’s one final ageist influence on young children, coming from a place where one would assume this should never happen: the classroom. Believe it or not, many schools participate in a rather barbaric activity meant to celebrate the 100th day of the school year. It’s usually known as ”Dress as a 100-Year-Old Person Day.”
As I’ve previously written in a post titled ”Let’s Teach These ABCs, Too,” there’s nothing like asking young children to draw wrinkles on their faces, don gray wigs, dress in baggy or frumpy clothes, and use walkers and canes to reinforce in their minds that these physical attributes should be the first (and often only) associations they should have with the concept of aging.
In that piece, I described several strategies for addressing all of the aforementioned ageism-inducing causes. But here I want to offer another one: exposing young children to pro-aging books. An extremely valuable website created by children’s book author Lindsey McDivitt called A is for Aging, B is for Books goes a long way toward helping adults prevent ageist attitudes in their children.
I recently interviewed McDivitt about how pro-aging literature can help kids develop more realistic and positive perceptions about growing old. What follows is a slightly edited transcript.
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What kinds of stories, images, and characters in children's literature and other media help to promote such ageist perceptions in young minds?
I believe ageism in young children often manifests as the belief that older adults are less competent than others. Unfortunately, modern books for children go beyond witches to reinforce this belief by showing the child’s character as the active one generally helping the older character in some way. A child protagonist is what publishers prefer, and a story that tugs at the heartstrings. Many age stereotypes rear their ugly heads –– old and sick, old and forgetful, old and lonely, old and grumpy, and so on. Of course the authors and illustrators have long been inundated by these images via other media, and kids are, too.
What are healthier ways to depict older adults in children's stories?
Children's books that show creative olders enjoying life through a great variety of activities beyond knitting and gardening and fishing. There are amazing older artists, adults continuing careers and beginning new ones, people traveling and sharing skills by volunteering, for instance. A far greater diversity of older characters is needed. Older adults are actually more different from each other than young people because of their long life experience.
Are there pitfalls in going too far in the opposite direction by creating old characters that are ultra-positive or doing ultra-physical things?
It's definitely important that the messages shared include possibilities for late life that children may not be aware of, but balanced with the fact that not everyone can start running marathons in their 70's. Also, we should impart the truth: that people are often happier in later life despite nearing life's end, and happiness doesn't require extreme pursuits or success.
More pro-aging children's books are being published all the time. Are they finding their way into school curricula, or are they limited to bookstores and libraries?
I particularly celebrate picture book biographies for kids that highlight long lives well lived, a recent and growing genre. They are included in schools quite frequently when focused on science. However, most teachers and librarians remain unaware of the importance of showing kids a diversity of older characters and talking about late life. Even the word “aging” is generally avoided in children's literature and still equated with illness, dementia, and decline.
What are your tips for parents, teachers, and other adults who want to talk with kids about the realities of growing old?
Number one, be aware that much of what you believe about aging is either myth or falsehood, so it's important to educate yourself first. Secondly, negative age stereotypes are actually harmful to both kids and adults. What we believe about growing older affects our health and longevity. Lastly, many book lists with older characters, grandparent books, etc. are actually rife with stereotypes, unfortunately. On my website I maintain a resource list under "Picture Books.” Many [entries on the list] link to my blog posts that include helpful ways to talk with kids about growing older.
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In Hammerstein’s words, since children have “got to be taught to hate and fear,” it logically follows that they can also be “carefully taught” the true ways to think about aging.
All of us must become the teachers they so desperately need.