Stories we Tell Ourselves About Age

A "I’m taller on my tippee toes".
B "I’m taller than my.. on my tippee toes".
A "We’re both.. we’re both taller than you, C."
Anna What does that mean?
A "You are small age of three and a half".
Anna How old are you A?
A "I’m three and a half".
C "I’m three and a half".
B "But why aren’t you big, C"?
C "Because I ate too, I ate lot of food and a lot of food and a lot of food and I growed and growed and growed"!
A "I can run like three miles away"!
B " growed and growed and growed and growed and growed and grower and growed and growed"!
Anna But C didn’t grow quite as much yet?
C "I did"!
Anna He’s noticing that he is a bit taller than you. You’re about this tall, and he’s a bit taller, even though you’re both three and a half.
A "Well I’m taller on my tippee toes". (leans to compare height)
B "I’m taller on my tippee-toes. (Leans against yard stick). Let’s see if he’s taller than this". (yardstick). "Nope. This is taller than you, that means I’m bigger".
A "I’m taller, and I can walk like this". (walks on side of feet, B and C follow).
Anna Looks like he can do that too!
B "My Mom said I’m bigger, and I can walk like this". (walks with yardstick tapping on floor)
Anna But he’s three and a half too.
B "Then why are you not bigger than me"?
C "I am".
Anna "He’s big, because he’s three and a half. But you’re a bit taller".
B "Well let’s see if you’re taller than this". (Holds yardstick up to C).
Anna Hmm. He’s the same size as that.

The children moved on to play happily, but the conversation stayed with me. No one seemed upset or angry during this conversation, but I could hear potentially hurtful words on behalf of the child with the smaller body. I recognize the processing of ideas about size, time and age here and I know that needs to happen. Part of it is the conflation of the word 'big' with the words 'tall' and 'older/younger'. That happens often in preschool and has for my whole career. That's why I tried to unpack the words 'big' and 'tall' with the children.  

There seems to be a drift toward conformity in this dialog, as well as some questions about who holds power over others. Do we all have to be the same size? Do older people get to dominate younger ones? Do conversations like this, when not mediated, help cement ideas that some people are better than others because of how our bodies look. The idea that superficial factors indicate superiority is such a powerful one in our culture. The roots of stereotypes and prejudices begin in very early childhood. How lucky am I, that I can be here to unpack some of this language! 

Being an early childhood educator means I hear children testing theories and processing big ideas and I don't judge it as good or bad- it's just what people do to gain new understandings. It occurs to me writing this that I view it as a privilege to be able to be close to dialog like this. I would welcome the same level of listening to my words that I can give to children. I wonder what language I use that perpetuates the idea that bigger is better, older is better? I'm an adult who tries hard not to dominate over children, but I bet there are things I say and do that give the message that might makes right.

Words matter. As a teacher I can help children hear words and consider their implications when they evoke stereotypes and inequity.  I feel so lucky that these children speak freely with me and allow me the possibility to reflect on my reaction. I also feel that there's something here- starting my own word choices- that I can help change.