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A Surprising Start To Ageism

August 24, 2009

Research conducted by the University of Alberta’s Sheree Kwong See and Elena Nicoladis has identified that negative stereotypes about older people exist in some children as young as age two and could adversely affect them when they are older. "We’ve been able to show really early on that kids, when they’re just starting to talk, have established beliefs about older people," said Kwong See. "We’re seeing what we could call ageism by about age three." For their study, to be published in the journal Educational Gerontology, the researchers measured the reactions of young children after being quizzed on vocabulary words by either an older or younger adult. Results showed that children who had less exposure to older adults had a stronger language bias against the older person in the experiment than those who had more exposure to older people. "If you are interacting with ‘nana’ more frequently, you’ll start to see that she’s a pretty good teacher of words even though she’s old," said Kwong See. "When you have little contact, dominant negative cultural stereotypes emerge—you think an older person isn’t as alert or in-the-know as a young person and maybe is not as good a teacher." Unfortunately, kids are also getting negative images of aging from cartoons, story books, even watching how other people interact with seniors. The long-term implications for these biases can be damaging in children’s interaction with and treatment of the elderly throughout their lives and in their own self-concept as they age. "But they’re also starting to pick up some of the positive images as well…if they get lots of good interactions," added Kwong See. Grandchildren and grandparents can share a special bond that should be encouraged to add to the elders’ quality of life and give kids the right outlook that will serve them well for their own future.