Children are natural ageists, but fortunately, grandma and grandpa can help, a new study says. The research, published in Child Development, shows that prejudices against the elderly (or even the teenaged) are common in younger children but tend to decline as those children grow up. However, the more quality contact kids have with grandparents, the less likely they are to assume that old people are made of mothballs and butterscotch.
“For many children, grandparents are their first and most frequent contact with older adults,” study co-author Stephane Adam, professor of psychology at the University of Liege, said in a statement. “Our findings point to the potential of grandparents to be part of intergenerational programs designed to prevent ageism.”
Past research shows that toddlers can begin to display signs of ageism as early as age two. The new study measured young children’s reactions to both younger and older researchers quizzing them on vocabulary words, and found kids were significantly more reserved with older ones. However, when parents reported that children interacted with older adults, the same effect was not observed. Other studies show that people are prone to same-age biases, but this may be due to exposure as well. Given the growing body of research that supports the developmental benefits of kids’ relationships with their grandparents, Flamion and her team wondered what they could help with the rampant ageism among their grandkids.
To test this, researchers surveyed 1,151 children ages 7 to 16 about their opinions about the elderly and on getting older. They also asked participants about the health of their grandparents, how often they saw their grandparents, and the overall quality of the relationship. Although children’s views towards old people generally ranged from neutral to positive, the largest mitigator of ageist views was not about the amount of contact, but the quality. Interestingly, when children reported having unhealthy grandparents, they were more prone to negative views about elderly people.
“When it came to ageist views, we found that quality of contact mattered much more than frequency,” study co-author Allison Flamion, a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of Liege, added.
While the quality of contact with grandparents mattered with older kids, the effect on ageism was less significant, mostly because kids became notably less ageist around age 10. This is consistent with cognitive-developmental theories that children acquire more sophisticated perspective-taking skills around this time. Ageism reared its ugly head again around age 13, when kids don’t really like anyone anymore.
Although the sample was large and included children from rural and urban areas, and a range of socioeconomic statuses, there are limitations to the entirely self-reported data. Likewise, the sample was entirely French-speaking kids from Belgium. More research needs to be done to determine if these findings are culturally specific and the findings need to be duplicated.
Until that happens, since no 6-year-olds are not doing the hiring for companies and research shows they’ll outgrow it, kiddie ageism is relatively benign. It’s nothing to encourage, but nothing to freak out about. But the findings are a good excuse to call Nana and Papa for an overnight visit.