Your NPR news source

How Old Are You?

SHARE How Old Are You?

So is your kid reading Wordsworth yet, or is he still stuck on Mother Goose? Maybe that's an impolite question. But in our often cutthroat world, it seems that people have no problem competing over bank accounts, cars, jobs or children. That recently dawned on teacher and writer Robert Duffer.

Playground season is finally upon us and there is one game I won't be involving my kids: the “how old is he” game. On the playground especially, this question of measurement turns the swing sets into lab tables.

Let me illustrate: two toddlers stumble about separately when, underneath the bridge by a dead bird, their worlds collide. Then comes mother, who stops and turns to me, then stares at my boy, measuring his head size, his height, his hair growth patterns—who knows what. Sizing him up she asks, “How old is he?”

An innocent question always asked of little ones, right? There's nothing innocent about it. If mother uses it to initiate a conversation about parenting or milestones, my goodness, I'd welcome it: I need to hear that I'm not the only one getting it wrong. And I wouldn't mind if she ignores me and directly engages the boy: kids are more interesting anyway.

I take offense when mother, upon getting her answer, gives some kind of self-satisfied smirk—or maybe it's a wince—and frets on after her child, her head full of measurements.

In no other walk of life is this acceptable. Even first encounters with dogs are more respectful. You bend down to pet the dog and if you deign to talk to the human it is only to ask the dog's name. OK, sometimes dog lovers will ask the breed but this is not advisable to adopt on the playground.

And why not ask the child's name first? If you're going to go sniffing around in his shorts, you should at least know his name.

I know that parents' expectations—and anxieties—are born in the womb. It's comforting to know about other kids' development. Height, weight, word capacity, stumbles-per-steps, brightness of eyes, hand-eye coordination, stair climbing, hoarding, running, dancing, spitting, falling, crying, sliding, swinging—kids will reach milestones at different times, as it should be. As adults we don't appreciate the inherent assessment and instant measurement of the age question unless it works in our favor, which it increasingly doesn't. So back off, this is a playground. 

The question has more to do with the parent than the kid: it serves only to validate or aggravate.

My adorable, Harvard-bound world changer has curlier hair than yours, that organic, hormone-free, Swiss Alps- imported, fern-folicle baby shampoo is really worth it—I am a good parent. Or: Little Timmy is almost one-year-old and still not saying ca-ca. Damn you, Baby Einstein, damn you!

And yes, my boy is in the lower percentile of height (Egad, get out the stretching machine!) so my indignation might be my insecurity. I don't care. With my baby girl and henceforth with my boy, I'm going to play a game at which adults are especially adept: lying.

As the boy runs across the playground, climbs up the slide, and generally enjoys the bounty of youth, I will respond to the obnoxious parent, "Oh yes, he's nine months old. He just finished reading Ulysses. In Latin. And what can your creature do?"

Then maybe she'll loosen up and share in her child's fun.

More From This Show