Back in 2016, I got my first job as a summer camp counselor. It was an outdoor adventure day camp, to which the six figure-making lawyers and consultants of Washington, D.C. sent their straight-A getting, lacrosse-playing children for a taste of the great outdoors.
The campers ranged from four years of age to 15, with those nine and up able to choose which among the activities—kayaking, rock climbing, horseback riding, and more—to pursue. I, as a typical sheltered suburbanite (though a competitive rock climber rather than a lacrosse player), had attended the camp myself throughout my childhood.
We Junior Counselors, or “JCs,” could request which age-activity combinations to supervise. Though I had to do my fair share of toddler-wrangling, I was granted a few weeks in the Big Leagues: the rock climbing program for kids aged 9-15. Each cohort of about 12 campers had 3 staff members: a JC, a head counselor or “HC” at least 18 years old, and an “instructor” to provide technical expertise.
As a 16 year old mere months older than some of my campers, it was a little bizarre. I was an Adult, getting paid (barely) to ensure that the youth in my care remained happy and healthy in the rugged Maryland wilderness. By and large, it was a good camp. What I’m about to say doesn’t negate the overall-positive experience of most campers.
Staff lied to campers constantly. We were expected to, and generally obliged. Not about important things, either. In fact, the lies generally concerned utterly trivial matters.
Child protection is good
Now, I’m not entirely naive. I understand that placing children of all genders in the care of three young adults literally in the woods, including on one overnight campout per week, is a situation tailor-made for abuse. And the camp, to its credit, took this very seriously. We had training after training and rules and guidelines galore designed to ensure that no staff member would ever be tempted to misuse his or her power and status.
This was a good thing. Child abuse is bad, and I’m glad we erred on the side of “careful.” I understood that my relationship with the campers was not to be intimate. Staff shouldn’t, and didn’t, reveal the skeletons in their closet to middle schoolers at rock climbing camp. No playing “truth or dare” around the campfire, either. Understood.
But did we really have to lie so much? Take my age. Though I don’t recall being explicitly told “you may not reveal your age to campers,” doing just this was an obvious norm among staff.
Like any normal human being, the campers wanted to know some basic biographical information about the people they were spending their summers with. This was particularly true for me, a 16 year old who looked about 14 on a good day, whose size-small “counselor” tank top was held up with safety pins to prevent the neck hole from drooping down to my nipples.
My fellow counselors, when inevitably asked this question, would say something like “you have to guess” or “six hundred” or “maybe if we win the song competition I’ll tell you at the end of the week” (they wouldn’t). Nobody said “17” or “31” or “sorry, I can’t tell you that.”
Though human memory is fallible and it’s been five years, I’m pretty sure I got tired of telling stupid, pointless lies. When campers asked, I made the completely banal decision to answer their question. Our conversations generally went like this:
Camper: How old are you?
Camper: You look like you’re [insert number between 11 and 15].
Me: I know.
And that was that. My authority remained intact. No one stopped listening to me. Maybe I’m indulging myself, but I think the campers might have been pleasantly surprised at, you know, not being lied to for once.
I didn’t only do this for the sake of my campers’ dignity. I really did look younger than some of the campers, and it was in my own best interest that they be aware I was not. My fellow counselors didn’t get mad at me. They didn’t bring it up. They just kept on lying to the kids, and I did not. I can’t say for sure I was the only one who told the truth, but I sure never heard anyone else do the same.
It wasn’t just my age. They’d ask which school I went to, and (if my memory serves correctly) I told them. I’m sure they asked some things I really couldn’t or shouldn’t have answered, and then I wouldn’t tell them.
Back in my gung-ho veganism days, I remember thinking the term speciesism was really dumb. Damn right, we should treat different species differently. Unlike with, say, racial identity, there really are important differences—moral and otherwise—between dandelions, lobsters, chickens, and humans.
I still think the term is ripe for misinterpretation, but I now see the underlying concept as sound. Speciesism is arbitrary differential treatment, rather than differential treatment justified by real differences in underlying traits.
Ageism is the same way. We really should treat young kids differently than adults, but only because they have different underlying traits—not because of their age per se. If we don’t think that kids’ have the cognitive capacity or confidence or something to make big life decisions or competently assess risk, fine.
I’m not saying we should let infants sign contracts, and I’m not even saying we should never lie to children. Whatever Kant would have you think, dishonesty is sometimes the lesser of two evils and therefore the right thing to do, but the chronological age of the person you’d be lying to isn’t a good enough justification.
The socially acceptable prejudice
I guess great minds think alike, because after writing this subheading I came across the AARP’s article “Workplace Age Discrimination Still Flourishes in America.” Under its own subheading, “Ageism: An accepted bias,” it argues that
ageism in the workplace occurs every day across America, and it is tolerated or — even worse — unrecognized for what it truly is: discrimination, plain and simple.
“Age discrimination is so pervasive that people don’t even recognize it’s illegal,” asserts Kristin Alden, an attorney specializing in employee rights at the Alden Law Group in Washington, D.C.
Ageism is most commonly discussed in the context of employment discrimination, but its social acceptability rings just as true in the context of other, non-workplace incarnations.
Anyway, I think there are two fundamental reasons why ageism is so common and acceptable:
Age really does correlate with differences in underlying characteristics like mental aptitude.
All adults were once children, and most adults expect to eventually get old.
The first reason seems pretty intuitive; it really can be hard to tell what is justified differential treatment (say, not letting toddlers sign legally-binding agreements) and what is straight-up, arbitrary bias.
The second point is more subtle. It’s the “I can’t be racist—I have a black friend!” of ageism. “I can’t be biased against children,” we think, “I was a child myself once!” I think there’s a bit of retributive justice going on, too: if I had to endure a childhood of casual, well-meaning disrespect, why shouldn’t I get to enjoy the status-privileges of adulthood?
These narratives are rarely made explicit. I’m sure I’ve been disrespectful to children before without saying such things out loud, or even really thinking about them directly. Nor are they malicious. When my fellow counselors and I were lying to the campers, we thought of it as a big joke. We were teasing them, playing a game the campers never agreed to join.
This is why ageism is so pernicious. It’s easy to moralize racism and sexism; there are the oppressors and the oppressed. What happens when we’re all on both sides of the power structure, albeit at different times in our lives? This bias, well-intentioned and hidden in plain sight, doesn’t fit well into a compelling moral narrative.
If you only read one link in this post, make it the Atlantic’s “There’s a Better Way to Parent: Less Yelling, Less Praise” (warning: uses up one of your monthly free articles), an interview with the author of Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans. Part of it reads:
Joe Pinsker: Many American parenting strategies, you estimate, are only about 100 years old, and some of them arose more recently than that. What about American parenting sticks out to you as distinctive and particularly strange?
Michaeleen Doucleff: One of the craziest things we do is praise children constantly. When I was first working on the book, I recorded myself to see how frequently I praised my little girl, Rosy, and I noticed that I would exaggeratedly react to even her smallest accomplishments, like drawing a flower or writing a letter, with a comment like “Good job!” or “Wow! What a beautiful flower!”
This is insane if you look around the world and throughout human history. Everywhere I went, I don’t know if I ever heard a parent praise a child. Yet these kids are incredibly self-sufficient, confident, and respectful—everything we want praise to do, these kids already have it, without the praise.
It’s hard to cut back on praise, because it’s so baked in, but later on, I decided to try. It’s not that there’s no feedback, but it’s much gentler feedback—parents will smile or nod if a child is doing something they want. I started doing that, and Rosy’s behavior really improved. A lot of the attention-seeking behavior went away.
Doucleff emphasizes how excessive praise induces attention-seeking behavior, but I’d like to draw attention to its direct, first-order effect: children feel disrespected.
I started playing baseball in first grade, and didn’t stop for nearly a decade. During elementary school, I distinctly remember loathing the hollow, meaningless compliments that coach after coach fed to us players (which my father just confirmed as a regular complaint of mine, so I’m not making this up). Practices and games were a constant stream of “Way to go down swinging, Jackson!” and “Great effort, Mike!”
If you had asked me at 8 why I hated these “compliments,” I’m not sure what I would have said. In retrospect, though, I think I (correctly) understood them as a subtle reminder that we elementary schoolers were unworthy of being treated like normal human beings. After all, I knew the coaches were being disingenuous most of the time; it just wasn’t plausible that everything we did was so commendable.
In other words, I knew that adults were lying to me. Perhaps the word “lying” is a little strong, but I’ll stand by it. Saying “great job” when you know damn well that the job wasn’t great, with intent to deceive, seems like a lie to me—however well-intentioned.
(Literally) feels bad, man
There’s another subtle objection that I’d like to preempt. In the annals of culture-war adjacent academia, there is plenty of discussion of things like “dehumanization,” “stereotype threat,” and structural racism or sexism, which some folks are skeptical of. Whatever you think about these things, I’d like to distinguish them from what I’ve been calling “casual disrespect” of kids.
Some social theorists purport these institutions to be important because of their subtle, nefarious, perhaps even subconscious impact on the structure of society. Even if nobody is overtly offended by bits of casual sexism thrown around, the thinking goes, such behavior helps to perpetuate a structural imbalance between the power and autonomy of men and women.
I’m not disputing this, but once again let me emphasize the direct, first-order effects of “casual disrespect.” It is not merely that kids are disempowered or whatever. It literally makes them feel bad! Ok, I can’t say for sure what’s going on in other people’s heads, but it sure as hell made me feel bad, and it sure seemed like my campers felt bad when they were being lied to.
We can speculate about the second-order, structural effects of ageism all we want, but let’s not forget that people feel bad when they sense they’re being disrespected, and kids are people too.
Not just dishonesty
So far, I’ve focused on dishonesty because it’s the thing I have salient personal experience with (as a camp counselor and baseball player). That said, there are countless other ways that we adults treat children inappropriately without giving it a second thought.
Mannerism and tone of voice
You know how everyone talks to dogs and babies in weird, high-pitched voices? Yeah, we do a slightly toned-down version to kids as old as, say, 13, and I don’t think it’s cool. This video (starts at 0:52, watch for about 30 seconds) is a fascinating example. The speaker is explicitly demonstrating how to treat children respectfully and yet still talks in a distinctly “baby talk” tone of voice.
It goes like this:
The first thing to remember is, children are humans, just like you.
If you’re not used to being around kids, I know it can be tempting to speak down to them or talk to them in baby talk, but honestly, you really don’t have to do that. You can speak to a child the same way you speak to anyone else. In fact, that’s the best way to speak to them…
For example, it’s better to say, even to a five month old infant, “Would you like your bottle?” versus “Baby want a baba?”…
For instance, you could say, “Can you point to that crayon?”…
The bolded lines are spoken in ‘baby talk-lite,’ and I don’t blame her. When I imagine speaking to an eight year old exactly the way I would speak to a peer (in tone and manner, not content), it feels weird. Instead, I instinctively make the pitch of my voice a bit higher, add more inflection to my voice, and otherwise subtly adjust my mannerisms. It’s not full-on “baby-talking,” but it is a step in that (wrong) direction.
I’m perfectly willing to accept that children are sometimes genuinely not mature enough to handle certain content. I, for example, had nightmares for weeks after watching the movie Contact when I was about seven. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t happen to me now. But I think we sometimes deem things “inappropriate” without even considering whether the content could plausibly cause anything bad to happen.
If you think there’s a reasonable chance your kid might learn that violence is ok or have nightmares after watching a violent movie, fine, don’t show it to him. But if you’re inclined not to let your kid watch Zero Dark Thirty or something because of some vague notion that it’s “inappropriate,” consider interrogating this intuition.
Compared to violence, it’s even harder to justify our sex prohibition. I’m far from the first person to note America’s prudish tendencies, but even liberal, sex-positive people often concede that kids shouldn’t see naked bodies or watch people have sex on screen.
Again, there are plausible justifications for this. If a sex scene is borderline (or not so borderline) abusive, you might worry that a child would learn the wrong lessons about power and consent and such. Likewise, I think everyone should be wary of regularly consuming superstimuli like porn, children included. That said, literally what bad thing is going to happen if your kid sees Rose naked in Titanic? I managed to survive the movie as a kid without becoming a sex addict.
Curse words are very similar to content censorship. I get it, we don’t want third graders running around yelling “FUCK” just to get everyone’s attention at Walmart. But what, exactly, is so problematic with children using the same words that adults use in the appropriate setting?
Path dependence and coordination
There is one very real barrier to treating children more like normal human beings: coordination. If your child is the first of her peers who knows how babies are made, other parents might get upset if little Julia relates this information to her friends. Likewise, even if you’re ok with Johnny cursing after he stubs his toe, others might look down on you both. Breaking social norms ain’t easy.
Even still, there are some things for which being the first mover isn’t too difficult. If you’re the only baseball coach who doesn’t ceaselessly offer empty praise to the players and all the kids like you just as much, you’re really not risking your reputation. Likewise, other adults might be a little surprised when you speak to a toddler in a completely normal tone of voice, but they’re not going to exile you from polite society. Perhaps, gradually, the norms can creep in the right direction.
According to my parents, my second grade teacher told them that I “acted like a 40 year old man.” I still don’t know what she meant by this—I cried all the time, so it definitely wasn’t emotional stability. The point, though, is that perhaps my childhood experience was not representative of others’.
If so, maybe kids really aren’t harmed or offended by being told untruths and being prevented from watching violent movies. Maybe my campers really didn’t mind when we refused to reveal our ages, and maybe other children genuinely prefer when adults speak in a modified tone of voice.
But, to be frank, I don’t think so. I may have been more interested in physics than the median first grader (an interest I have since lost), but I highly doubt that my entire experience was sui generis. After all, I was playing baseball and basketball and doing Cub Scout stuff and playing trumpet and going to summer camp just like so many of my peers. And, just like them, I endured the same needless censorship and well-intentioned disrespect so deeply ingrained in our culture.