Each year, the White House celebrates Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, with first lady Michelle Obama playing host to students from all over, answering their questions in a personal Q&A session.
This year was no different, except for the fact that one little girl has made headlines for what she chose to ask: the first lady’s age.
“How old am I?” Obama “bemoaned” to the girl, according to ABC News. “I’m 51.”
After an inaudible exchange, the first lady asked the girl to repeat her response into the microphone. To which the young girl replied with, “You look too young for a 51-year-old.”
Obama then hugged the little girl, thanked her, and presumably all’s well that ends well. Or is it?
My first thought upon reading about the exchange was, “If that had been my kid, I would have been mortified. It’s totally awkward and inappropriate for kids to ask adults their age.”
But then I wondered why.
I mean, I guess I know why: Manners were a way of life in my family when I was a kid. All my teachers, parents’ friends, and basically every adult was to be addressed by Mr. and Mrs. “Please” and “thank you” were mandatory, and certain topics were off limits, especially if they involved someone’s weight, finances, pregnancy status, or age.
As far as my kids are concerned, not much has changed, except they call most of my friends by their first names, and in our school district, all teachers also go by their first name (with kids in the elementary school adding a Mr. or Miss in front). They know better (or at least they’re learning as we go) not to discuss someone’s appearance in front of or to them, unless it’s to say something nice. My 6-year-old daughter has also become aware that other people’s money is a topic with which she shouldn’t concern herself (although some argue that’s now passé, too).
As for age, since my daughters are both obsessed with their own birthdays, they assume everyone else is, too. So they generally ask friends, family, and strangers what kind of cake they’ll have at their party, what the theme will be, and what gifts they expect to receive. When my 3-year-old asks someone their age, it’s so cute it can hardly be interpreted otherwise (“How many you?” she’ll ask after someone asks her how old she is. And because she generally thinks her next birthday will easily be the best one since the grass is always greener, she’ll answer for them with the assumption that they are also the ideal age, “You fo-wa, white?”
I suppose I’ve told my older daughter that it’s not polite to ask adults their age, although, really, why is that? As David Brancaccio said on American Public Media’s Marketplace Morning Report recently, the death rate in the United States is 100%. Everyone will die and most people will do it when they’re older — which means they actually aged successfully and correctly.
If that’s the case, then why are we still perpetuating the notion that our age — and other people’s ages — are something that should be secretive? Why be ashamed or embarrassed by the grand accomplishment of getting older (think of all the people who die young who would trade anything for the privilege)? Why shouldn’t kids ask adults their age?
I think the answer has more to do with the comfort level of us as parents in demonstrating to others that we are teaching our children to be polite members of our communities. While many of us recognize that times change and it’s now OK to, say, wear a hat indoors or use a smartphone (sparingly) at a restaurant, some manners are passed down to show a sign of respect and deference to others for precisely the number of years of experience and wisdom that they presumably possess.
It could be that certain niceties will die out on their own, although those of us who grew up with many of them unequivocally will have a hard time being the ones to let the flame flicker out on our watch.
Is it OK for kids to ask adults their age?
Uh oh! Please try again later.