Looking Younger, Feeling Older
One of my pet peeves as a child was when adults thought I was younger than I was. I’ve taken that sensitivity with me, such that one of my pet peeves as a mother is when other adults assume my two boys are less capable than they are.
Of course most of these adults are just trying to make friendly conversation, both now and back then.
“Why, you must be in the second grade!” they’d exclaim, when I was actually in the fourth. As I pouted (therefore showing my young age) my mom would exclaim, “When you’re older, you’ll wish people thought you looked younger!” And the two adults would laugh, making me feel very small. During one especially memorable exchange, my parents and their friends discussed something over dinner. One of the adults kept pausing to define words I already knew. At one point, she laughed, “This is probably so boring to you!” I responded, “I’m smart enough to follow the conversation!” Of course, such a rude statement just proved my immaturity, such that I’ve never forgotten that day.
It wasn’t the appearance of lower chronological age that bothered me; it was the perception of my abilities. I hated it when adults would speak to me slowly as though I couldn’t understand them. Similarly, I am frustrated when other adults raise their voices an octave to say hello to my children.
Often, another adult will ask my five-year old a question, and then only wait a beat before laughing and saying the answer. “Guess he’s shy!” or “Don’t know that yet, eh?” they’ll giggle, while both my son and I seethe. “I know that!” he’ll exclaim, and the adult will do that “Awww, isn’t that cute!” head tilt.
Even my nine-year old gets the kiddie treatment at times. His response is usually to say nothing out of exasperation, but I’ve explained that he should answer the question, even if it is ridiculously easy. Unfortunately with him, the assumption is that he can’t possibly know the answer. For some who know his “diagnosis” they will frame his behavior within that label. “How NICE to see him playing with other children so well!” one woman exclaimed loudly to me the other day. Mmm, Autism Awareness Month doesn’t mean “make everyone aware of who might have a label of autism.” Similarly, just because he received the spectrum diagnosis at preschool, he is no longer a preschooler, so there is no need to treat him as such. Would I ever exclaim that a nine year old (or even someone several years younger) is “playing well with others?” No. Likewise, I still wonder what was in one field trip chaperone's head when she told me brightly that my son “did really, really well today!” Why wouldn’t he have done well?
Of course I should be in no hurry for my kids to grow up, and as long as their teachers are aware of their abilities, it shouldn’t matter what other people think. But, just as we seemed to compete in Gymboree to see whose baby would roll over first, we tend to keep an eye on where we “stand” in the pecking order. My kids are smart! Don’t treat them like they aren’t! Can’t we all just admit that everyone’s kids are simultaneously brilliant!? Unfortunately, I know it won’t stop. College admissions letters are rolling in, and the not-so-innocuous “Where did you get in?” question is thrown about. Faster than I know, it will be my kid on the receiving end of the question.
Ah yes, college. When I had one of the many parental interviews during my oldest son’s preschool days, the condescending doctor remarked, “Now, were you able to go to community college, or did you not finish high school?” I think he thought I was lying when I explained where I had gone to college, and how I hold a graduate degree in neuroscience from another prestigious university.
Likewise, while I worked at a co-op preschool, another mom made comments like, "Well maybe someday if you go to college..." and "Do you think you'll have kids someday?" Clearly she didn't understand I was a fellow parent, believing instead that I worked for the preschool full time.
One afternoon at an elementary-school event at the home of a very wealthy surgeon and his biologist wife, another mom laughed and said, “You’re gonna hate me for asking this, but how old are you?” When I told her, the biologist laughed and said, “Yeah, I thought you were fresh out of high school!” I smiled too, but later thought about how if I were fresh out of high school, that would mean I had no professional accomplishments or university degrees. But I’m part of your world! I have two neuroscience degrees! I might not have all the money you do, but I have scientific smarts! Of course I kept quiet, but I did later slap a college sticker on the back of my van.
Nope, I didn’t bring out the grad school sticker. Yet.