A Teachable Moment
Perhaps you’ve seen them?
Photographs and videos of young students posted on social media by proud teachers and parents across the United States celebrating the first 100 days of school.
The students, ever so excited, are dressed in “old face,” which includes drawn on wrinkles and colored gray hair, to “celebrate” this special day. In case you’ve missed these images, old face is typically accompanied by old costumes – eyeglasses, canes, walkers, hiked-up pants, cardigans, etc. These children can be seen in videos shuffling down school hallways, often hunched over.
It’s all very cute, until it’s not.
It’s all fun and games, until you realize that these children are being taught to embrace and exploit age-based stereotypes, to discriminate based on chronological age, to be ageist.
Late last night, I engaged a friend and teacher (who happens to be a Fourster) on the subject. I expressed my concerns that ageism had crept into her classroom. She was defensive of the practice, and shared the following thoughts with me:
“We discuss this [sic] with the kids… show examples of seniors doing very cool things (gymnasts etc.) and tell them that they should never stop learning, living. We’re celebrating the life they hope to have when they reach this age.”
I was satisfied with her response, until I wasn’t.
I kept thinking to myself, ‘What if these kids were encouraged to come to school in drag to learn about Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing, Harvey Milk, or James Baldwin during Pride? Would dressing in drag and playing upon gay stereotypes be OK if the children were learning about the valuable social and economic contributions of gay men?’ The answer was decidedly ‘NO!’
The near-doubling of human lifespan over the past century is quite possibly the greatest achievement in human history. However, with the extension of human life and the codification of old-age, we’ve gotten stuck in a vicious cycle that forces people into an antiquated concept of what it means to live a long life and to be old. We openly mock people for living longer by forcing age-based stereotypes upon them, and then we force these same people into a social construct based on their chronological age, not their life stage, that inhibits their ability to contribute to society.
What few people realize is that ageism has a profound impact on our health and economic success.
Academic studies conducted on five continents have demonstrated a clear relationship between ageism and health, defining three discrete ageism predictors: age discrimination, negative age stereotypes, and negative self-perceptions of aging. To put it simply, how older adults are treated, how they view aging generally, and how they view their own aging, directly influence the social determinants of their health – from employment opportunities and income to their interaction with health services to their social support networks.
Interestingly enough, even fewer people realize just how much human life expectancy continues to expand in most developed and developing nations*. These same children who are dressing up as old people have a greater than 50% chance of living past 105, and a TIME Magazine cover from 2015 suggested that the first human to live to be 142 has already been born!
Rather than encouraging children to dress-up as old people and promoting ageism, schools should be giving students the tools they need to live past 100 years.
They should be instilling a culture of resilience and relevancy in these students. They should be teaching savings and financial literacy. They should be promoting a culture of healthy behaviors, including diet and exercise. And they should be telling every child that chronological age is not a determinant of success.
As adults, if we don’t help today’s youth envision their long-life future, we only contribute to their eventual social and economic demise. Shame on us if we set them up to fail.
We’re better than ageism. Let’s not force our bias upon our kids.