Ageism is everywhere but also invisible at the same time.
It’s truly an implicit bias, affecting almost everything we do—our understanding of those around us, our worldviews, and the actions and decisions we make.
The effects of these implicit biases start young, as early as infancy. Children and infants learn negative biases through their parents’ gestures, body language and facial expressions, and these nonverbal cues meld to form unconscious biases in children.
Even our digital media and advertising depiction of older adults is overshadowed by common ageism stereotypes: Seniors often don’t play central roles in films or TV shows, and if they’re featured, they’re usually at the receiving end of an ageist joke.
This attitude spills over into society, particularly in Western cultures. Instead of older generations living with their younger relatives, it’s more common for them to live in adult communities or nursing homes.
What unconscious implicit biases do these messages instill in our youth? Often, it leaves the impression there’s no place for older adults in daily family life, simply because of their advanced age—that older adults are frail, and their intellects, ideas and contributions are faded and outdated.
While we can’t prevent implicit biases from forming, newer research is showing it’s possible to “un-bias” young children (and ourselves).
Create awareness of stereotypes
Making children aware of the existence of ageism, and stereotypes in general, can reduce their impact.
Teaching them about first impressions is a good place to start. Teach them to make it a habit to pause after they’ve automatically created a first impression of someone, and ask themselves if their first impression is warranted, or has been proven true. Kids who understand that getting to know a person is the only true way to form an opinion are going to grow into more inclusive adults.
Children’s literature suggestions:
Expand their interactions
Create opportunities for your children to be in circumstances where older adults are present. Research shows that children who are more involved in the lives of older adults – grandparents, great-grandparents, neighbors, etc. – are less likely to be ageist as adults.
Kids and Grandparents: An Activity Book by Ann Love and Jane Drake is full of activities for kids to do with older adults. The activities include food, memories, crafts and games, and they can be easily modified for non-family relationships, too.
Monitor what your children see
While you can’t control everything your children see on TV and in movies, keeping tabs on what they do digest in the media will help you to know what kinds of conversations you need to have with them.
For example, it’s important to point out any age biases that appear in advertisements, TV shows or movies. Explain these are stereotypes, and discuss how these stereotypes are not reality and that they can hurt people in many ways.
Picture books that celebrate seniors and aging:
This warm story brings to life the joyful relationship between a girl and her grandfather. It’s an excellent tool to help children understand the changes associated with dementia, and inspire us all to help people live well in spite of this affliction.
Stories from Senegal, Japan, Russia, Hawaii, Mexico, Ireland, Germany and Sweden that feature older women who are kind, intelligent and independent.
This is the perfect story for anyone planning a nursing home visit. Bunting’s perceptive, dignified and heart-warming portrayal of one family faces the challenges of aging.
For more picture books that celebrate seniors and aging, visit DoingGoodTogether.org.
Chapter books that celebrate seniors and aging:
An engaging, coming-of-age tale, as well as an introduction to the difficulties of aging and Alzheimer’s.
The friendship between three Japanese boys and a wise older man.
Older readers (13 and up) will be captivated by this unlikely friendship between a 14-year-old delinquent and an ex-con out on parole at the end of his life.
For more chapter books that celebrate seniors and aging, visit DoingGoodTogether.org.
Remember that an educated, aware and inclusive child will grow into an educated, aware and inclusive adult. To beat ageism, we must start young, and stop the bias where it starts.