Many children harbor negative views of elderly people. Some children even fear seniors. This article will explain how to use children’s books to counteract those fears and negative stereotyping.
The Problem and the Cause of Children’s Negative Views of Elderly People
Research done by the American Association for Retired Persons, teamed with the National Academy for Teaching and Learning about Aging, found evidence that a majority of American children hold negative views of the elderly. This discovery should be no surprise. The elderly are revered in many other societies, but American society worships the young and beautiful.
It is perplexing to think that the world’s greatest country doesn’t give the aged the deference that they have earned. Testimony to this allegation is the fact that the ailing Medicare program for our senior citizens during former President Bush’s administration was sacrificed in our federal budget to tax cuts, and viable solutions for the social security situation were not being addressed.
If adults have such little veneration for the elderly, how can we expect our children to have positive views? Children truly learn what they live. However, the example adults set isn’t solely responsible for our children’s negative view of the elderly.
According to the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities, children’s views concerning older people are greatly influenced by the books, stories and verse that they are exposed to at an early age. A good example is a verse from a traditional folk song - “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly. I dunno why she swallowed the fly. Perhaps she’ll die.”
Armed with such verse, beloved as it is for its fun and nonsense, and with the portrayals of wickedness and wretchedness of older people in some Grimm or Anderson fairy tales, is it any wonder that the elderly are viewed as silly, inconsequential, and utterly disposable?
Using Children’s Literature to Promote Positive Views on Aging
It’s not as if the market for children’s literature portraying the elderly in a positive light hasn’t been tapped. There is much good literature on the market that does just that. The availability is evidenced in the extensive reading list compiled by a joint effort of the Association for Library Service to Children and
’s Center on
Aging, Health and Humanities. The
Resources section provides a link to this reading list. George Washington
Since positive reading material is available, then possibly the degree to which we are actually exposing our children to it is the crux of the problem. If the reading of such literature is not encouraged by parents, librarians, and teachers, then its potentially positive impact can’t compete with the negative impact of the age-old fairy tales entrenched in our literary culture.
After all, how familiar are our children with the positive portrayals found in books such as Grandfather’s Journey by Alan Say, or Valerie Flournoy’s The Patchwork Quilt? Can the extent of children’s exposure to such magnificent literature even compare with the number of times they’ve either read, heard or seen in film the story of Cinderella or Rumpelstiltskin?
How do we begin to address discrepancies in the degree to which children are exposed to these two types of reading material? One obvious place to begin is in the home, the school library and the classroom. Parents, teachers and librarians need to provide appropriate literature and find creative ways to employ lessons and projects using books that portray aging in a positive light and that encourage inter-generational interaction.
Annotated List of Recommended Books that Promote Positive Views of the Elderly
Stephen Gammel. 1988. 30p.Knopf, (0-394-99330-6). Song and Dance Man.
Grade level K-3: In this Caldecott winner, Grandpa, a retired former vaudeville performer, enthrals his adoring audience, his three grandchildren.
Flournoy, Valerie. The Patchwork Quilt. Illus.l by Jerry Pinkney. 1985. 32p. Dial Books for Young Readers, (0-8037-0097-0).
Grade level K-3: So that the old ways won’t be forgotten, Tanya and her grandmother together work on a patchwork quilt made from pieces of their old clothing. As Grandma explains, “A quilt can tell your whole life story.”
Giff, Patricia Reilly. Pictures of Hollis Woods. 2002. 166p. Wendy Lamb Books, (0-385-32655-6).
Grade level 5-8: Twelve-year old Hollis is taken into the foster home of Josie, an artist who inspires Josie to express herself in her own drawings. Josie is slipping into dementia, and Hollis struggles to save her relationship with this woman she has learned to love. Since students participating in a nursing home visitation project would most likely encounter dementia in some of the residents, this book would be appropriate preparatory reading.
Hamanaka, Sheila. Grandparents Song. 2003. 32p. HarperCollins, (0-688-17853-7).
Grade level K-3: Grade level K-3: This is a rhyming celebration of ancestry and our country’s diversity that tells the story of a girl who traces her ancestry back through her Native American grandparents.
Hittleman, Carol G. And Daniel R. A Grand Celebration: Grandparents in Poetry. Illus. by Kay Life. 2002. 32p. Wordsong/Boyds Mills Press, (1-56397-901-2).
Grade level K-3: This poetry anthology celebrates grandparents of all ages, cultures, and degrees of energy. This selection would be great for read-alouds during observances of National Grandparents’ Day.
Hunter, Dette. 38 Ways to Entertain Your Grandparents. Illus. by Deirdre Betteridge. 2002. 47p. Annick Press, (1-55037-749-3).
Grade level K-3: This is a lively picture book that details 38 activities that use common materials for grandparents and grandchildren to share.
Lakin, Patricia. Grandparents Around the World. 1999. 32 p. Blackbirch Press, (1-56711- 146-7).
Grade level 3-6: This selection examines the role that grandparents play in various countries, discussing their position as the elders in their cultures.
Love, Ann and Drake, Jane. Kids and Grandparents: an Activity Book. Illus. by Heather Collins. 2000. 160p. Kids Can Press, (1-55074-784-3).
Grade level 3-6: This is a collection of more than 90 activities, crafts and recipes for children and grandparents to do together.
Mead, Alice. Junebug and the Reverend. 1998. 185p. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, (0-374-33965-1).G
Grade level 4-6: In this sequel to Junebug, Mead, his mother and little sister Tasha have left the projects for a new home where his mother begins work as the residential manager for an apartment building for the elderly. Mead (nicknamed Junebug) is given the daily responsibility for walking an elderly emphysema patient, old Reverend Ashford.
Rotner, Shelley and Kelly, Sheila. Lots of Grandparents. Illus. by Shelley Rotner.2001.32p. Millbrook Press, (0-7613-2313-9).
Grade level K-3: Beginning with the words for grandmother and grandfather in seven different languages, this book emphasizes the foundation of racial diversity and multiculturalism, as well as the varying types and abilities of grandparents. The variety of photographs can lead to enlightening classroom discussions.
Siebolt, Jan. Doing Time Online. 2002. 88p. Whitman, (0-8075-5959-8).
Grade level 3-6: When Mitch plays a trick on an elderly neighbor, he is sentenced to one month of community service chatting twice weekly online with a local nursing home resident. Their conversations are mutually beneficial as the resident helps Mitch apologize, and Mitch helps her accept her circumstances. This is relevant reading in preparation for a nursing home visitation project.
Zindel, Paul. The Pigman. 1968. 182p. Harper Collins, (0-06-026828-X); Harper Trophy, paper, (0-06-075735-3).
Grade level YA: Two teenagers from unhappy homes tell of their bizarre relationship with an old man who they first trick and then befriend.
Picture credit: Nyobe