While we’re teaching elementary students how to read and do math, we should add lessons on the benefits of Aging, Belonging, and Community.
At some point in a "normal" school year (yes, COVID demands that I use quotation marks), many lower-elementary-school classes celebrate the 100th day of school with a "Dress as a 100-Year-Old Person Day." The educational justification is to teach the value of 100 as a quantity.
Which leads me to ask: What is the value of any number, really, except in its comparison to another number? Given this assumption, there are many ways to teach number value. However, aligning it with a person's age –– or rather, with the common cultural perception of how a person of that age looks and behaves –– has become an appealing strategy. So young children are made up with facial wrinkles; sport gray wigs; dress in shabby, unfitting, unfashionable clothes; use canes or walkers; and are encouraged to walk slowly with stooped postures and speak in shaky voices.
There's a basic problem with teaching the value of 100 in this way. As a number increases, so does its cumulative value, which means that something fundamental about it is gained, not lost. After all, isn't it more desirable to have $100 than $1? Or to have read 100 books instead of 1? Or to have traveled to 100 places in the world than to have visited just 1? Having young children dress up as cutely decrepit old people sends the message that what is accumulated is simply and solely more deterioration and decline. It would be like asserting that 100 is less valuable than 1 because it's further away from 0.
We're all aware of the deterioration-decline narrative about aging that we fully embrace as a society. But this is not the whole truth about aging. In fact, it's not even half of the real story. For the sake of our future selves, and those of our kids, grandkids, and all generations that follow, in addition to teaching children the possible deficits of the aging process, we need to teach them its potential assets. And we need to do so right now. Why? Because ageism is a bias that can be internalized as early as age 3.
In a groundbreaking study published last year, researchers found that young children's attitudes toward older adults were determined by direct interactions, such as having an ongoing relationship with a grandparent, and aligned according to the quality of those experiences, which tended to be described as neutral or positive. In most cases, children ages 3 to 6 thought of older adults in warm terms (kind, loving, sweet, gives hugs, plays with me) and were simultaneously aware of physical conditions (slow, has wrinkles, wears glasses). However, between ages 7 and 9, children start to perceive aging in ways that may be influenced by unconsciously ageist parents, their views taking on negative overtones that reflect dependence, loneliness, sadness, and disease. Such parental influences, combined with ubiquitous ageist media messages, reinforce and strengthen children's negative biases as time passes.
And thus, ageism perpetuates within another generation.
Since this kind of education is the cause, it must also be the remedy. Intergenerational programs that expose young children –– especially those who don't have regular, supportive contact with grandparents –– to positive role models of aging can add balance to their perceptions. Locating a preschool within the site of a long-term-care community and holding daily interactivities is one solution. Another is to pair older adult volunteers with at-risk lower-elementary students for tutoring and companionship.
While these initiatives tend to reduce age bias subtly and indirectly, we can and should do better. Why not bring discussions about aging out in the open and into kindergarten through 6th-grade classrooms, to tackle ageism at every level of student comprehension?
I propose the following:
Let's create a nationwide "ABC" curriculum for public and private schools that pair and train a 20- or 30-something adult with a person age 50+ (the older the better) to go into each classroom and hold an informal but substantive conversation about aging that answers kids' questions, addresses their fears, and educates them about the basic realities of getting older. Those conversations and the curriculum topics covered will be tailored to the students' grade level.
And here are those ABCs:
Aging. Children need to know that aging isn't a disease but rather a natural process that all living things undergo (and yes, death should be discussed). Every stage of a person's life from infancy to old age has its challenges and benefits that depend on individual experience and the ways in which the body, and especially the brain, develop. The young-old teaching pair can model a mutual appreciation for each other's skills, talents, and accomplishments and encourage students to describe their own abilities and interests.
Belonging. All humans need to feel connected to and accepted by the people around them. In order to communicate the fact that ageism affects people of all generations, the teaching pair can describe their own experiences of being misjudged and excluded solely based on assumptions about their age. This can include discussions about stereotypes and the unreliability of first impressions of an individual's physical and personality traits.
Community. All humans also need to be productive and to lead meaningful lives. The teaching pair can talk about ways in which they have contributed to their community as well as benefited from the contributions of others. They can focus on the special roles an older person can play throughout life so that old age doesn't equate with neediness and uselessness. Students must learn that society shouldn't deny older adults opportunities to keep growing, learning, and sharing their experiential wisdom with others.
Because increased longevity in our population is resulting in many more people living to be centenarians, maybe we should rethink the whole approach to teaching the value of 100 that enhances rather than detracts from the achievement of reaching old age. Surely we owe it to future generations to employ better ways to communicate acceptance and appreciation of growing older. We can do it, you know. It's not that hard.
In fact, it can be as easy as ABC.