Stood at the counter of a bright and airy hipster café, faced with an array of colourful and delicious baked treats, I asked a 5 year old M, "What cake would you like?" She surveyed the counter for a moment until her eyes settled on a square of something chocolatey. "That one!"
Had my companion been another adult, this enthusiastic declaration would have initiated the transfer of cake to plate and that would have been the end of it...you can probably guess that's not what happened. "Oh, that one's very minty" came the reply, "you probably won't like it". I so hate moments like this! The ones that you later freeze frame and, with the crystal clarity of hindsight and the benefit of time to actually think, realise with cringe inducing obviousness what you should have done. Unfortunately we only have a 'review' function, not a 'rewind'. (Oh, for a rewind!) Often I'm so blindsided by these moments, so loath to risk appearing rude, just frazzled - or a combination of these things - that doing/saying the right thing eludes me until it's too late, even if 'the right thing' is screamingly simple. I'm getting better at handling these awkward unwanted interactions (with practice - cheers, strangers who put me on the spot!), but this wasn't one of my finer moments. Damn.
What I should have said was: "Well that's the one she'd like, we'll have one of those please". (Simple, no?) Advocacy, optionally served with an uncomfortably long, loaded pause, heavy on the eye contact, if I was feeling especially resolute and wanted to labour the point. What actually happened was: I fucked right up. Tired, taken aback, and wanting/conditioned to assume that caféman was trying to be helpful and save me shelling out for a treat that he thought wouldn't go down a treat, I went on an appeasement offensive. To M, eyes still on the winning choice of cake, I condescendingly and unnecessarily summarised what mint tastes like. “Oh yeah, mint? You know the kind of cool, fresh taste that can be a bit tickly if it’s strong? That’s what that one tastes like.” She knows full well what mint tastes like, and she likes it, and I know this, and she knows I know this. She didn’t dignify my blather with a response, and it didn’t deserve one. But I ploughed on, aware that caféman's attention was still on me, and sensing/imagining mounting pressure to complete the transaction, decided out loud that I'd have a chocolate cookie so if she didn't like the minty thing then she could have some of that. I didn’t actually want a chocolate cookie, and she wouldn’t need it. But this seemed somehow easier. Unfortunately, for some reason what caféman heard was, 'no mint chocolate square - just a chocolate cookie', which is what arrived at our table a couple of minutes later. M dutifully ate the unwanted cookie, I read her a story and felt horrible and decided to pick up a ‘minty square to go’ on the way out, which I then couldn't because the cakes got packed away early, and she never got the thing she asked for.
It was a nice cookie, but that's not the point. How disempowering must it feel not to even be trusted to choose a cake? If this happened to me I'd be fairly pissed off. If, say, having perused a cocktail menu (I can dream) and made my selection I was told I probably wouldn't like it because it had bitters (or whatever) in it, on the assumption that it would likely be too much for my white/female/British/whatever palette can you imagine the scale of hard stare the bartender would get? Medusa level. Stop making prejudicial assumptions about what I like and just start making the damned drink, the stare would say. The assumption that M wouldn't like the cake was based on her being a child. And as a child, her palette was assumed to favour/tolerate a narrow range of flavours. Her choice was undermined and overridden. This is not helpful; this is adultism. On chocolate cookie day, I was complicit in that. Not a proud moment, but a learning moment, and I take honest ownership that particular parenting low point here. I’m not happy about it, but mistakes and screw ups happen. I apologised to and talked it through with M, and I know I'll be a better advocate for her next time this kind of thing rears up. We’ll be back at the same café sometime soon (...and adultist behaviours are pervasive and entrenched and therefore widely available elsewhere, yay!) so I likely won't have to wait long for a chance of redemption. (I’m not intending to demonise caféman by the way. Maybe he has a kid who hates mint. Maybe he hates mint. Maybe he kicked himself over how he handled it too. I don’t know. It’s just one example of attitudes and assumptions directed at children that are plain wrong. And what would it even matter if the chocolate-mint-tastic flavour combination was new for her and wasn't to her taste? I've not enjoyed everything I've ever eaten, despite my fully grown adult status, but nobody tried to stop me trying wasabi sauce.) This limited expectation of children's palettes is just one example of adultism creeping into children's food choices. Look at children’s menus; so often a veritable feast of chicken nuggets/fish fingers/sausages with beans/peas and chips/smiley faces. Why, though? How is this helpful? Why not just smaller portions of the main menu? Do limited expectations and limited options become self fulfilling limited tastes, to be diversified later when a wider variety of expectations and options become available? And can I have smiley faces with my lasagne?
(Side note: my 5 year old likes olives, tonic water, and parmesan and dislikes custard, pizza, and cheesecake.)
Once children have food in front of them adults regularly interfere in how much, and of what, they should eat, far beyond the remit, and even to the detriment, of trying to encourage a healthy diet. Whether that be expecting them to clear a plate, bribing them to do it with dessert (thus elevating pudding to an ultra desirable level and making other elements of a meal a chore) or coercing them with bargaining phrases like "just eat another spoon of peas and one of those carrot sticks". Again, if this happened to me I'd be wildly unamused! Imagine me sitting at the table having a Sunday roast, finishing when I'd had enough, and my husband telling me to eat the stuffing or I couldn't leave the table. He'd be stuffed.
Combinations of food, too are often policed. Recently I made M scrambled eggs on toast for lunch and she asked for strawberry jam on the toast. Strawberry jam and scrambled eggs?! So gross...to me. But to M it was evidently delicious because that's what she ate. (I managed to keep my initial reaction internal and overrode the knee jerk 'no'.)
Even the order in which food is eaten is often subject to adult control. I had a teacher in primary school who stalked between tables every lunch break, patrolling the packed lunches and chanting "Savoury first!" I once ate a raisin before my sandwich to see if anything would happen and it didn't, it just tasted extra delicious for the rebellion. Eat that. It was the same teacher who also told me that if I didn't eat my sandwich crusts I wouldn't get curly hair, but still insisted I eat them when I told her I was fine with my hair how it was. I call bullshit. But I digress...
Of course it's not just the world of food that's subject to adultism, it shows up in every arena. Thinking more broadly then, and finally coming to a point, perhaps to help identify, and prevent, incidents of adultism we could apply a similar maxim to this -ism as Caitlin Moran does to sexism...
"In short, how can you tell when some sexism is happening to you? Well, in this matter, what ultimately aids us is to simply apply this question to the issue: Is this polite?"
- Caitlin Moran (from How To Be A Woman)
I might be tempted to fall down a semantic rabbit hole here (you know I did) and change the wording slightly to suit adultism in particular, given its propensity to discount children as valid members of society, to 'Is this civil?', so it would work in the sense of politeness and in terms of regarding the child involved as a whole person - a being, not a becoming.
Considering Adult-Child interactions using those three little words - made more potent by also reconsidering the same situation in Adult-Adult terms - has the power to alter the direction, and the impact, of many small, but not insignificant moments.
'Is this civil?' It doesn't sound like much, but journeys are made of many steps, and, to stretch and twist the analogy* (oh let's), paving can be made of many pieces that regarded individually, seem immaterial. Keep going, and at some point when you look back you see a path. The path under construction here is heading towards children's rights. Let's go there.
* When has there ever been a handy path ready laid towards any social change? Every movement that's ever occurred has had to create a path - pointing out where the next step could go, laying the groundwork - while also encouraging the advance along it. And there's no point in a handful of enthusiastic pioneers zooming on ahead, or off road, because it's not about a few people getting there, it's about everyone getting there. Metaphors: they're fantastic. OK I'm done here.