Sunday, September 23, 2007

the age barrier

Age has nothing to do with the relevance of what one has to say.

There is an assumption that is often made that age connotes intelligence. And to some extent this is true. More experienced people have a more complicated, more nuanced view on life. They have perspective. They can look back on experiences and determine which ones were important and which ones weren't particularly meaningful; they can evaluate their actions and reactions in each of these situations. But children have something else; they have an insight and intelligence that is unmarred by contact with cynicism and perceived reality.

One of the most frustrating things for me as a child was adults not wanting to listen to me. The assumption was, "she's just a kid; what does she know?" This is something my parents were very careful never to do to me. My parents always treated me as an adult and always listened to whatever it was I wanted to tell them, whatever insight or new piece of knowledge I had. They respected me and so I was able to respect them.

I have no respect for people who resort to the argument, "I'm older than you, therefore I'm smarter than you, so shut up now." I similarly have no respect for people who scream, "I'm the teacher; you're the student, so shut up." These two things don't go hand in hand. Being older or being in the position of authority doesn't necessarily mean that you know more than me and it gives you no right to yell at me because you don't like what I've said. If you disagree with me, prove it to me, don't shout it at me. I'm willing to be disproved; indeed, I'd relish any such discussion. These statements are not arguments.

I've always found "Kids' Tables" to be a condescending form of separation. I'm sure there are several perspective on the existence of such "Kids' Tables." The adult doesn't want the child to be bored by grown-up conversation and decides to put all the kids together in order to entertain one another. And sometimes there truly isn't space, so it makes sense to create a kid's table. But I hated this. I always felt the slight; I always felt that the insinuation was that I had nothing of value to add, that I wouldn't understand the grown-up conversation, that my opinions or ideas were not important. My parents were also very careful never to have "kids' tables" at our house; everyone sat together at the table. We felt like equals; we felt like our ideas were valued, too. My parents deliberately did not have guests over for important holidays, like for the Pesach Sedarim. You know why not? Because they wanted to make sure the conversation was geared toward us, toward the children. They didn't want adults giving over complicated divrei Torah; they wanted their children to speak up and voice their ideas and opinions.

I've always wanted to grow up. From the time I was little I remember longing to be an adult. Do you know why? Because I was under the impression that as soon as I achieved this proud label, "adult," people would suddenly listen to me. I wouldn't have to struggle anymore; I wouldn't have people shout at me "you're just *insert age*" or "you're just a student;" now I would be able to talk without anybody thinking anything amiss. The fact is that regardless of my label, there will always be someone older than in me or in a position of authority who will use this fact as a weapon. I did not recognize this when I was younger.

It sickens me to watch the way many adults treat their kids. "Oh, you're so cute; you know that?" They say this while completely disregarding something the child has just told them, something honest and truly felt. There's so much condescension between adults and their kids! Why? Why is this necessary? How many of you really listen to children? They have so much to say and so much to add and most people ignore them. Do you talk to them? I do. I swore to myself, I remember making a vow when I was eleven, that I would never forget what I felt like then, that I would always treat children with respect. People admire me for being "good with children." You want to know why I'm good with them? Because I actually want to hear what they have to say. Because I don't pat them on the head and dismiss their ideas or say "oh, you're so cute" or otherwise mock them and assert my intelligence. Children enjoy creativity and thinking and finding people who are like them and do the same. They like dress-up games and telling stories or explaining where their train tracks are going, the different cities where they live. And they like an attentive audience. My parents were so good to us. We used to build cities out of Tinkertoys and then would proudly call my mother out of the kitchen and explain to her all about what we had built. Oh, and it's the same thing with drawings! Back in the days when all we could do was scribble, my parents were careful not to ask "What is that?" That can hurt a child's feelings. Instead they would say, "Tell me about your picture." And then they would listen as I explained that this line was Grandma and that one was a barbecue...

I wonder why we associate meaning with age, assume that only those of a certain age have the right or authority to speak and everyone else must simply listen. But what I'm more troubled by is the realization that all of this did have an impact on me. All this "I'm older than you, so shut up" or "I'm the teacher; you're the student, so shut up" took its toll, and I don't think I fully realized that until just now. I realize now that I'm afraid, actually afraid, to say what I think because I expect this reaction. I expect someone to start shouting at me. I'm still a child; in some ways, I think I always will be. And I'm expecting that threatening adult to loom over me and either laugh at me and pat me on the head and dismiss me or shout at me because I've said something they dislike. And though I know that what they do is worthless, and it's they who are at fault, there's a disconnect between what I know and what I feel. Why should I bother, after all? Why bother give over an opinion where it's not wanted; why bother to put myself in a situation where the teacher starts shouting at me? It's not worth it for me....I'm tired, so tired. I'm tired of having to fight and of having to risk things, tired of situations where people threaten me. I had a meeting with an administrator of an entire school where I had to give him an application essay. So I wrote the essay; he read it and said to me, "I don't understand Halakhic Man even now, and you are telling me as a seventeen-year-old you understand it?"

And what can I say to that? He's effectively put me in my place, asserted the age barrier once again. "How dare you suggest you can understand something that I, at my age, don't understand?" he's asking. The arrogance! The chutzpah! But tell me, why can't I? What if I feel a connection to a particular book, or I've read it at least twenty times; why shouldn't I be able to understand some parts better than you, even if I am younger? Why do you feel the need to put me down? There always has to be an assertion that I don't know anything because I'm age x.

But we all know something. Children know things that you don't know, and so do I and so does any other teenager. And so do older people, don't get me wrong; they have wisdom in addition to flashes of insight. The point is that we all have something valuable to add and age has nothing to do with it. And laughter and mockery and condescension kills people. It also means that they'll never trust you again. A child brings you something beautiful he made and you laugh at it and say it looks like an exploded tomato? Do you think that child is going to come back to you; do you think he will trust you again? Why should he? All you do is laugh. If you shout at me, "I'm the teacher; you're the student," I won't be able to respect you. And do you think I'll offer you my opinions or ideas again? Probably not, because why should I? Why should I trust you; why should I bother...

The age barrier is an idiotic invention created to support those who feel that they are unable to answer the questions or queries of the child, but who nevertheless must assert their authority or importance lest their self-esteem suffer. Someone who is truly secure welcomes the questions and ideas of a child, for they know his motives are pure. It is only someone who feels threatened by the child who responds by dismissing, laughing or shouting at him. And you hurt the child when you do this, and he grows up and knows never to trust you again. And he comes up with methods to protect himself from being hurt again. Either he doesn't offer his ideas or views in a public forum or he makes sure to put himself down before doing so, "This is probably wrong, but..." Or you get the confrontational people who just don't care and won't learn to be cagey and persist in putting themselves out there and dealing with the consequences. But even with them, it takes its toll.


Anonymous said...

There is a difference between intelligence and experience. You can be young and intelligent, but some things are only learnt through experience, through actually doing them, no matter how much you've read about them in the past. I think 'pulling rank' on age is justified in a few situations, albeit not many, and it should be done tactfully.

On the other hand, you can be not particularly intelligent and still have a lot of valuable experience.

When I was a child, I used to want to join in with the adult conversation because I assumed it would be full of fascinating philosophical and political ideas. Then I grew up and discovered it was all lashon hara, work stress and house prices...

Scraps said...

I also grew up participating in adult table talk in my house; my sister and I were fairly intelligent and well-behaved, so why shouldn't we sit and converse with the adults? And it did get me into trouble, because I did get put down and marginalized by other adults who felt that I didn't know my place, as well as by [supposed] peers who felt like I was "too smart". It didn't help that for a variety of reasons, I was somewhat more mature than many (probably most) of my peers, so I truly felt more comfortable around adults. But you learn to just put up and shut up, because it's better to bite your tongue than to be ridiculed or shut down.

Unknown said...

My parents treated me similarly, but I know I must have felt some sort of antagonism with certain adults because to this very day I am afraid to speak up or even enter places where it may not be my place. I am afraid of going into people's offices because, as a child, you never go into a teacher's office, or a principal's office, or the teachers' room - you had to wait outside, unless you were invited in. And this has scarred me, believe it or not.

Speaking, too. I am just slowly getting used to speaking up to adults older than me. I usually feel like I'm out of place, unless I know them well. And that is just so wrong. I honestly can't put my finger on why, but it must have been a mix of experiences, most probably outside my home - either in school, or at someone's house, I don't know. But I know what you mean by this.

On the flip side, though, I do see a use for the separation between kids and adults in certain circumstances. A kids' menu, for instance - kids just don't eat the same foods as adults. Children and young adult books, too. Yes, there are plenty of kids who read above their reading level, but even so, most children (not all, but most) like certain kinds of stories while adults like other kinds of stories. There is a definite need for children's literature. So an age barrier does make sense in some ways. Children are just not adults. And I don't mean that in a derogatory way, because I agree with you about all of that. I make sure always to speak to a child as though I'm speaking to someone my own age - none of this cutesy voice talk. I hate that. But in some ways, children have their own culture and I don't see it as being any less than an adult culture - merely different. Children live in a different world with a different outlook and with different wants and needs, and that needs to be catered to.

Ezzie said...

Orthomom had a great post about Kids' Tables a couple of years ago.

You know what I think about this - both are correct. There's much wisdom gained with age and life experience, and to constantly try to teach through discussion can be wasteful and inefficient. There's not always a need to relearn how to make the wheel; patience on the part of the one learning would allow them to realize why the teacher/elder is correct/does something a certain way better than any other way of learning. There's an expectation that people learn as children to gauge whether what they're saying has actual value or not; this seemingly cruel method is actually a good way of forcing many people to think and grow.

I'd also argue that most of the time when someone says something like that, it's not at all not only not intended to denigrate, but it doesn't denigrate. When he said he doesn't understand Halakhic Man, that's a reminder that maybe you need to take another look - it's something that requires more than just brains, but much wisdom and insight as well - and generally, those are gained through life experience, which a 17-year old simply hasn't had yet. It's not a put down as much as a 'there's still a long ways to go' comment.

Anyway, that's why I'd normally comment the following:

Age has nothing to do with the relevance of what one has to say.

False, because...

There is an assumption that is often made that age connotes intelligence

...this isn't true. The assumption is that age connotes wisdom. Many teachers, Rabbeim, and bosses of mine have said I'm smarter than them. But they're a heck of a lot wiser than me.

But children have something else; they have an insight and intelligence that is unmarred by contact with cynicism and perceived reality.

True, and it's sometimes a great advantage. There was a great article in the NYT (?) about kids coming up with simple solutions to complex problems that companies couldn't. At the same time, it's usually not "perceived" reality - it's actual reality.

Like I said, I'm in between. The examples you gave are very much from one side of the coin - how good parenting and teachers can really help kids progress. But that doesn't mean that kids opinions should be treated as equal to adults, *even to the kids*.

There's a time and place for everything.

Anonymous said...

Yes and no, depends on the topic/area in question.