A new Belgian study suggests that children who have very good contact with their grandparents have the lowest levels of ageism. The findings show that ageist stereotypes in children and adolescents typically decrease around ages 10 to 12 and then resurface again a few years later in the early teens.
Ageism is defined as prejudice and discrimination against older people. According to the researchers, this type of prejudice can be seen in children as young as three.
“The most important factor associated with ageist stereotypes was poor quality of contact with grandparents,” says lead researcher Allison Flamion, a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of Liege in Belgium.
“We asked children to describe how they felt about seeing their grandparents. Those who felt unhappy were designated as having poor quality of contact. When it came to ageist views, we found that quality of contact mattered much more than frequency.”
To measure rates of ageism, the researchers observed 1,151 children and adolescents ages seven to 16 in the French-speaking part of Belgium. The young participants were primarily white, from urban and rural areas, and from a range of socioeconomic statuses.
In questionnaires, the adolescents were asked to express their thoughts on getting old and about the elderly. The researchers also collected information about the health of the participants’ grandparents, how often the two generations got together, and how the young people felt about their relationships with their grandparents.
Overall, views on the elderly expressed by the children and adolescents were seen as neutral or positive. Girls had slightly more positive views than boys; girls were also more likely to view their own aging in a more favorable light.
Ageist stereotypes tended to coincide with the ages of the youths studied, with seven to nine year-olds expressing the most prejudice and 10- to 12-year-olds expressing the least.
This finding mirrors other forms of prejudice (such as those related to ethnicity or gender) and is in line with cognitive-developmental theories: For example, developing perspective-taking skills around age 10 reduces previous stereotypes. With ageism, prejudice seemed to reappear when the participants in this study reached their teen years, sometime between the ages of 13 and 16.
In addition, the grandparents’ health was also a factor in youths’ views on ageism: Young people with grandparents in poor health were more likely to hold ageist views than those whose grandparents were in better health.
However, the most important factor influencing youths’ views of the elderly was the quality of contact with their grandparents. The researchers rated the youths’ contact as good or very good when they said they felt happy or very happy (respectively) when they visited their grandparents.
Young people who rated their contact with grandparents as good or very good had more favorable feelings toward the elderly than those who described the contact less positively. Furthermore, the benefit of meaningful contact occurred in both children with the lowest level of ageism and those with the highest level, and boys seemed to benefit more than girls from high-quality contact.
Frequency of contact, while mattering considerably less, also played a role in favorable feelings toward older people. The researchers found that 10- to 12-year-olds who saw their grandparents at least once a week had the most favorable views toward the elderly, likely because of the multiplying effect of frequency with quality, the researchers suggest.
“For many children, grandparents are their first and most frequent contact with older adults,” says co-author Stephane Adam, professor of psychology at the University of Liege.
“Our findings point to the potential of grandparents to be part of intergenerational programs designed to prevent ageism. Next, we hope to explore what makes contacts with grandparents more rewarding for their grandchildren as well as the effects on children of living with or caring for their grandparents.”
The findings appear in the journal Child Development.