Here is a riddle: "I don't have much hair, I don't have all my teeth, I have trouble walking, I need
help dressing myself, I am often misunderstood, and I sometimes feel unwanted. Who am I?"
If you guessed "a toddler", you are correct. If you guessed "an elderly person",
right again. These two groups have much in common, but there is one important difference. The frail elderly
- and healthy seniors - have spokespersons to help make their needs known. Toddlers have no such help; when
they try in the only ways they can to let us know their human rights are being violated, they are seldom
taken seriously; instead they are often ridiculed or even punished.
The young and the old cannot manage all of their own physical care, and they need and deserve respectful
help. My first awareness of the similarities between the very young and the very old took place in Ohio in
1982. My mother-in-law Anabel, my son Jason, and I were visiting Anabel's parents, then in their eighties.
When it was time to leave, I found Jason's shoes, and I began to help him put them on. I happened to glance
around the room, and smiled. There was Anabel, kneeling down, tying Grandpa's shoelaces.
But the similarities go beyond physical assistance. A few years ago, in my city, an eighty-year-old
woman, suffering from osteoporosis and arthritis, was enjoying a rare excursion downtown. Painfully stooped
over, she slowly made her way down the street. At first, she was ignored by the strangers she passed, and
she felt lonely among the crowds. Finally, someone noticed her, and spoke; "Look at the
hunchback!" Shocked, the woman said nothing. Later, when she arrived home, she burst into tears, and
told the story to her son. She then added, wistfully, "They used to say I was pretty."
At an outdoor gathering, I once overheard a young mother scold her one-year-old: "Put on a shirt,
you look stupid!"
In a grocery store, a four-year-old boy tried, unsuccessfully, to lift a heavy item his father had just
selected. Instead of helping his son, he became angry, and swore at him.
The young and the old are often criticized for things beyond their control, and they deserve our
understanding. The elderly should not be blamed for their frailty and lost youth, nor should children be
blamed for things they have not yet learned to do. But the similarities in the way society treats these two
groups go deeper still.
Both groups find their needs shoved aside when they interfere with the needs of others. Seniors battle
age discrimination in the workplace, while families battle "no children allowed" policies in
housing. When both children and the elderly voice their opinions, they often find it difficult to get our
attention. It is as though children are expected to "stay in their place" - at home, at school, or
in day care, while the elderly are expected to "fade away" gracefully from the rest of society.
When they are not in "their place" but happen to be present in a group of mixed ages, both
children and the elderly are expected to be quiet, well-behaved, and non-demanding. There is something
curious going on here; after all, we have all been children in the past, and - if we are fortunate - will
also be elderly in the future.
Programs for children, and those for seniors, naturally reflect these negative attitudes, and tend to
meet the needs of the institutions that isolate these groups, overlooking their personal needs. More funds
are available for institutional care for the elderly than for the type of care that could enable them to
remain at home - as most would wish. Similarly, legislators promise more day care programs, rather than
offering funding or tax incentives for mothers that could allow babies and toddlers to remain at home, as they
Both young and old clearly deserve more choices in where and how they spend their time, and they should
not be so completely at the mercy of others' decisions. Still, the need for expanded choices for seniors is
more acceptable in our society than is the concept of more freedom for children, who are seen as somehow
different in nature than the rest of humanity, as property rather than as human beings deserving of human
In response to those who fear the expansion of "children's rights", the educator John Holt
"If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be very
wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and
affection you valued. Of course, if we saw someone walking toward an open manhole or some other grave
danger, we would shout, "Look out!" In this spirit we often and rightly intervene in the lives
"But this has almost nothing to do with "adult authority", some kind of general right
and duty to tell children what to do. It would be equally right and natural if an eight-year-old I know,
already an expert skier, should tell some adult that a certain trail was probably too difficult for him,
and that he should stay off it. What is speaking here is not the authority of age, but the authority of
greater experience and understanding, which does not necessarily have anything to do with age."
It is not just eight-year-old skiers who are expert enough about a matter to give us advice; a newborn
refusing a bottle is advising us - in the only way available to her - of the superiority of breastfeeding; a
baby who cries when "put down" is an authority on the critical importance of bonding through
touch; a child who cries in the night is communicating the wisdom of centuries of families sleeping
We need to free ourselves from age stereotypes, so that we can begin to appreciate and respect others of
all ages. But until we reach that point, legislation and official spokespersons will be needed for young and
Rejection and mistrust of children and seniors is especially prevalent in North America; in other
cultures, are more warmly welcomed and accepted. In Scandinavia, government subsidies allow the elderly to
remain at home, where they receive free meals, transportation, and care; for children there are laws
requiring the initiation of breastfeeding, prohibiting spanking and bullying, and even regulating the design
of new buildings from a child's point of view. Norway has a "Commissioner for Children", an
independent, public spokesperson who protects children's interests - the first in the world.
These successful programs give us hope and set examples for the work that lies ahead. We have begun the
process of legislating the rights of senior citizens, and more needs to be done. We also need to consider
the rights of children, who cannot speak for themselves, and who are therefore the most vulnerable group in
As Dr. Seuss reminds us, "A person's a person, no matter how small" - or how frail. We should
treat one another with love and respect, free from biases and expectations based on age. When young and old
are valued for their ageless spirit within, we will all live more freely and joyfully.