Young People and Ageist Language
Changing our attitudes toward children.
By Karen Yin • December 7, 2017
Harmful stereotypes about children and teenagers have a special grip on language. Prejudice or discrimination based on age—that is, ageism—directed toward young people is especially difficult to dislodge from an adultist society, because the attitude that young people are inferior pervades despite the staggering evidence to the contrary. Current discussions of ageist language orbit around how older people are demeaned by words like feeble, crotchety, and senile, but call teens lazy or selfish and not a blip will appear on the conscious-language radar.
When a stereotype seems to align with the stereotyped, it confirms our bias; when it doesn’t, we discard the exception instead of expanding our worldview.
Though the differences among this age group (let’s say under 18) are infinite, the diversity of nonadults is habitually dismissed because stereotypes come one-size-fits-all. When a stereotype seems to align with the stereotyped, it confirms our bias; when it doesn’t, we discard the exception instead of expanding our worldview. Many writers and editors would agree that bias is at work when different labels are applied to the same behavior, like calling men assertive but women bossy, yet we’re comfortable maintaining an active prejudice against young people, making assumptions about them, and reading things into their behavior.
Stephanie Blank, a psychotherapist in private practice in Pasadena, California, routinely notices the language used in the media for talking about children. “It’s become so toxic the way pop culture writes about tantrums,” she says. “How to stop them, win them, survive them. Tantrum has come to mean this awful thing a child does to get their way or the child being out of control, instead of being seen for what it is: an extreme flood of emotion.”
Avoiding double standards in ageist language doesn’t mean treating children like adults, but it does mean treating children like individuals.
Younger people are written off as apathetic, troubled, or going through a phase, but adults in similar situations are often given the benefit of a different story. Avoiding double standards in ageist language doesn’t mean treating children like adults, but it does mean treating children like individuals—the same goal with all groups of people. Assuming that any child is willful, naughty, or bratty when they don’t comply prevents us from gaining a nuanced understanding of them as a person. When a kid dismantles a toy car, whether they were being destructive or inquisitive depends on the kid.
One of the simplest ways to counter biased language is to replace it with factual language, including nonjudgmental descriptions (they threw the puzzle against the wall, not they started acting up), and terminology that is more neutral. Labels are conclusions, and conclusions discourage questions. Inexperience and immaturity are common qualities, but when we label young people stupid and juvenile without deeper examination, it’s stereotyping.
Labels are conclusions, and conclusions discourage questions.
Even though age is an unreliable indicator of sophistication and capability, sometimes age does matter. Examples of failure to take age into account include caretaking advice that accuses babies of manipulation, despite their being incapable of complex thought, and ascription of romantic or sexual intentions (and heterosexuality) to young children who have no such desire or awareness.
The larger consequence of charged language is that it can lead to the denial of civil and legal rights. Bullying at school was considered a part of growing up till the first anti-bullying state legislation passed in 1999, and corporal punishment is still legal and widely accepted in the United States. Disability, religion, generation, class, sex and gender, race and ethnicity, citizenship and immigration status, and sexual orientation are additional factors that influence the narratives about certain segments of the younger population.
[Root] our word choices, portrayal, framing, and representation in respect and accuracy instead of disrespect and dominance.
Questioning bias is central to an editor’s role, especially when dealing with historically disadvantaged communities. Age-based discrimination against young people can be minimized by rooting our word choices, portrayal, framing, and representation in respect and accuracy instead of disrespect and dominance. Many children are wiser, more mature, and more self-sufficient than many adults, and for language to be inclusive, it must include everyone.
As Dr. Judith Bessant writes in “Seen but Not Heard: Age Prejudice and Young People”: “The challenge is to be able to tell the difference between when we have an accurate grasp of what is actually happening and when we are relying too heavily on stereotypical prejudice. Making this distinction is not always easy.”
Karen Yin is the author of the upcoming book Conscious Language (Little, Brown Spark) and founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language; Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources; and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 ACES Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.