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
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
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
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
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
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 would wish.
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 rights.
In response to those who fear the expansion of
"children's rights", the educator John Holt replied:
"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 of
"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 together.
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 old alike.
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 our society.
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.