Children’s attitudes toward elders

Children’s attitudes toward elders

Valerie M Chamberlain

Abstract: Eighty-four preschoolers were shown photographs of three males and three females representing a young, middle-aged, or elderly adult. The children were asked to point to the picture of the person who wears glasses, exercises, is happy, is old, or is nice as well as to whom they would go for help. Stereotypical responses were more closely related to the age of the preschoolers than to the amount of interaction they had had with elders in their day-care centers. Pictures were found to be an effective tool for studying children’s attitudes toward elders and would likely be useful research tools when used to study attitudes toward race, ethnicity, and disabilities.

For several decades, Margaret Mead (1972) has been advocating that children and elders should interact more with each other. In recent years, interest has increased in the relationships between children and elders. Several studies in the past decade have been designed to foster a mutually beneficial relationship between these two age groups (Aldous, 1995; Lowenthal & Egan, 1991).

The increased number of intergenerational programs in daycare centers is evidence of a trend toward increased interaction. Past research on children’s attitudes toward elders and elders’ attitudes toward children suggests that, in general, children and older adults mutually benefit emotionally from shared experiences and daily contact. Support for intergenerational daycare centers is also driven by cost effectiveness, convenience, accessibility, and other consumer issues (Stremmel, Travis, Kelly-Harrison, & Hensley, 1994). Chamberlain, Fetterman, and Maher (1992) found intergenerational facilities to be economically feasible in rural areas and can meet the needs of many rural families as well as make use of underutilized large older country homes. These researchers concluded, “Intergenerational programs may also meet family and societal needs as well as build communication between the generations” (Chamberlain et al., 1992, p. 62).

Some studies (Aday, Sims, & Evans, 1991; Cohen, 1993) have revealed the frequency of contact between children and elders is directly related to more positive attitudes of children toward the elderly. Chamberlain, Fetterman, and Maher (1994) have described and conducted research at an intergenerational community care home in Vermont that provides residential care for elders and daycare for children. One aspect of their work involved assessing both elders’ and children’s attitudes toward their intergenerational experience. “The sample in this study was too small to provide data for statistical analysis but provided sufficient data to substantiate the positive effects of an ongoing intergenerational experience” (Chamberlain et al., 1994, p. 200).

Adam (1992/1993) found that children who visited nursing homes had significantly more positive attitudes toward elders than children who made no visits Adam concluded that contact with elders can break stereotypes and inoculate positive attitudes toward aging. SlaughterDefoe, Kuehne, and Straker (1992) have suggested stereotypes about elderly individuals can lead to fears about aging itself and can contribute to ageism that is both negative and destructive.

Unfortunately, seven studies cited by Aday et al. (1991) have shown that children’s attitudes toward older people are, for the most part, negative and stereotypic. Davidson, Cameron, and Jergovic (1995) have pointed out that these negative stereotypes are shown by children as young as 3 years old. Lowenthal and Egan (1991) cited several studies that show young people’s negative stereotypes of elders seem to be associated with age separation.

Children’s attitudes toward elders are shaped by family values, social interaction, teachers, and media. Preschoolers with the greatest contact with older family members have been found to perform age discrimination tasks more accurately than children lacking contact with elders (Aday et al., 1991).

Studies have shown children’s attitudes about the elderly are unaffected by whether specific older individuals are related to them. Slaughter-Defoe et al. (1992) reported a previous study by Kuehne in which the majority of children described their relationships with elder individuals who are relatives as similar to their relationships with elder individuals who are unrelated to them. Additionally, when the parents of the 86 preschool and third-grade children in the Kuehne study were asked how relationships with grandparents and great-grandparents were similar to relationships with unrelated older adults, 55 percent reported that familial and extrafamilial relationships were the same. For example, most parents (58%) also reported there were no differences in their children’s perceptions whether the elder was related or unrelated.

Davidson et al. (1995) described how they showed line drawings to first-, third-, and fifth-grade children. The pictures featured a man and a woman who were each about 75 years old; however, no references were made to the children about the age of the elders. There were no significant differences between the ratings of children at each grade level when they responded to a bipolar pair of adjectives reflecting attitudes toward the pictured elderly man and woman. Mean responses, with 5 being most positive, were poor-rich (2.20), ugly-attractive (2.65), sad-happy (2.75), sick-healthy (2.75), dislike-like (2.92), unfriendly-friendly (3.53), and badgood (3.67).These findings are somewhat different from results in other studies cited by Davidson et al., in which children rated elders as unattractive, poor, sad, and sick.

Cohen (1993) studied the attitudes of 162 Jewish children, hypothesizing that children who belong to a subculture that values elders would show positive attitudes toward them. Children’s attitudes were predominantly negative, but there was widespread perception of old people in terms of positive characteristics such as goodness, kindness, honesty, and wisdom.

In addition to viewing line drawings, children in the Davidson et al. (1995) study also were given a list of eight activities. Four were passive (sitting around, watching TV, playing a board game, and reading), and four were active (bicycling, playing outside, running, and swimming). The children were asked to respond “yes” or “no” to whether they would take part in these activities with elders like those shown in the pictures. Children were much more likely to rate a passive rather than an active activity as one in which to engage with elders. This demonstrates that the children in this study perceived elders as more likely to participate in those four passive activities.

Slaughter-Defoe et al. (1992) reported a research study in which 65% of the children described similarities between family and extrafamilial intergenerational social relationships in terms of passive activities. The children’s comments about elders included statements such as “They all play games” and “They both talk to me.”

Davidson et al. (1995) reported that when children were shown the line drawings of the elderly man and woman of the same age, their mean ratings on all of the bipolar pairs of adjectives were near the mean. When the same children were shown line drawings of young and middle-aged adults two weeks later and were asked to react to the same descriptors, they reacted significantly more positively than they did toward the elders.

Davidson et al. (1995) also reported that when children heard verbal descriptions of elders, they tended to “like” the people more if reference to their elderly age was included. The older children liked the older characters less than the younger children did. Further, children liked the older female character better than the older male character. Significantly, more positive information was recalled about the elderly female character than the elderly male character.

Stremmel et al. (1994) have shown how the literature reviewed here relates to future intergenerational programming: “Important issues face child and adult care administrators who are interested in intergenerational daycare programs High on this list of issues are the training and supervision of staff members who will plan and direct intergenerational activities and develop curriculum guides for age and developmentally appropriate intergenerational programming. Current professionals in the field have spoken about the key role that specialized training will play in making these programs work” (p. 518).

Objectives of This Study

The authors attempted to develop a valid and reliable pictorial attitude assessment instrument to determine preschool children’s attitudes toward elders. The authors also examined differences in preschoolers’ attitudes toward the elderly with regard to the children’s ages and the amount of interaction the children had had with elders at their daycare facilities


Eighty-four preschool-age children attending 10 different daycare facilities in Vermont and New Hampshire were involved in the study. The facilities were selected because of their geographic proximity to the homes of the two graduate students, Cheryl Abrash and Susan Bushnell, who conducted the interviews. Another reason for the selection of these centers was the directors granted permission to interview the preschoolers. All the children at each site participated; however, some data-collection master answer sheets were incomplete so all the children’s responses could not be analyzed. The preschoolers ranged in age from 3 to 6 years (only one subject was 6). The mean age of the children was 3.94. The number of children at each age was as follows:

Data were analyzed by grouping the 5-year-olds and the 6-year-old into one category.


Six similar-size photographs of three smiling women and three smiling men were located to represent individuals in their early 20s, mid 40s, and late 60s When the photographs were submitted to a class of 12 college students, there was 100% agreement as to which pictured adult represented the young, middle-aged, and older male or female.

The two graduate students received simultaneous training by one of the researchers for interviewing the children. The graduate students practiced using role-play procedures.

The 84 preschoolers from three child development centers that participated in the study were asked to point to the photographs of the youngest and oldest man and the youngest and oldest woman. One week later, the same children were asked again to indicate the youngest and oldest individuals in the pictures. The pictures were placed in random order on a table in front of the children. There was 80% accuracy and agreement about which person was youngest and oldest following this one-week test-retest procedure. After it was determined that the pictures were an appropriate representation of the three age groups and based on the review of literature and the experiences of the three researchers, one of whom has had extensive experience in preschool child-care management, the next step was to develop questions for the pilot test to determine preschool age children’s perceptions of elders. Thirteen questions were validated to be appropriate by a panel of six experts with professional experience in Family and Consumer Sciences, elder care, and evaluation procedures. It had been decided that only those questions with 70 percent or greater agreement in response from pretest to posttest would be retained for use in the actual testing.

When the same 84 preschoolers who had previously validated the ages of the adults in the photographs were asked each of the 13 questions, they answered by pointing to one of the six pictures in front of them. When the same questions were asked a week later, six of the 13 questions had 70% or more consistency in responses from the test to the retest. The 13 questions with the percent of consistency from test to retest are shown in Table 1.

The actual testing took approximately seven to eight minutes. The only responses analyzed were those for the six questions with 70% or greater agreement after a one-week interval. A master answer sheet was used to tally preschoolers’ responses The interviewer coded the responses by circling YM, MM, EM, YW, MW, and/or EW (which corresponds to Young Man, Middle-Aged Man, Elder Man, Young Woman, Middle-Aged Woman, and Elder Woman) next to the question asked. The responses were compiled in the aggregate and then grouped by the preschoolers’ ages at the time of testing. Then the children’s responses were compiled on another answer sheet, which grouped responses solely by the age of the people in the pictures rather than by their gender and age. Consequently, instead of six possible answers, there were three.

It should also be noted that in addition to who was youngest and oldest, there was 80% consistency among preschoolers regarding who was a man and who was a woman and in the response to the question about whether the preschooler had a grandparent. There was 70% consistency in test-retest responses when the preschoolers were asked in an open-ended question about their grandparents’ activities.


Preschoolers’ attitudes toward elders were analyzed by the age of the children in categories of 3, 4, and 5/6 years of age. Because there was only one 6-year-old child in the sample, that child’s responses were included in the group of 5-year-old children. The attitude responses of the preschoolers are given in Table 2.

Approximately the same proportion of preschoolers in each of the three age groups indicated that young, middle-aged, and old people are happy. In each age group, more preschoolers indicated elders wore glasses; all of the 5-year-olds gave this response, which is a realistic perception. The same age-trend response was noted for indicating that an elder “is old.” The older the preschoolers, the less likely they were to indicate that elders exercise or “are nice” and the less likely they were to go to an elder for help. This suggests that stereotypes about elders increased with the age of the children. These findings support those of other researchers as reported by Aday et al. (1991), Davidson et al. (1995), and Lowenthal and Egan (1991).

The preschoolers’ responses were also analyzed by the amount of interaction they had with elders at the daycare center the children attended. For these analyses, the children’s responses were studied in the aggregate and not by their ages. Their responses were divided into the following five categories as approximations:

Frequency of Number of Interaction Preschoolers

Four times a week 25

Once or twice a week 9

Twice a month 12

Four times a year 11

No interaction 27

Total 84

Table 3 provides data showing the children’s attitudes toward elders for all five categories of interaction studied. Those preschoolers who interacted with elders approximately four times a week and those who had no interaction with elders had the most similar responses. Perhaps this is true because those with considerable contact with elders (four times per week) and those with almost no contact with elders were most likely to develop stereotypes. Children today are exposed to media such as television, advertisements, and children’s books that often depict elders negatively. Children also hear negative comments made by adults about aging and elders. When children visit elders in nursing homes, the elders are usually in passive and sedentary situations.


The findings of this study suggest the need for longitudinal research to determine preschoolers’ attitudes toward elders after a year, five years, and longer to see if their previous amount of interaction is related to future attitudes. It is also suggested that preschoolers’ responses be analyzed by the gender of the elders pictured to determine if older women are viewed more positively than older men as reported by Davidson et al. (1995). In our study the elders pictured were both males and females because that’s who the children were interacting with in their daycare facilities. The same number of photographs of males and females were used.

Because the findings of this study were inconclusive regarding attitudes of preschoolers toward elders as analyzed in regard to intergenerational frequency at the children’s daycare centers, it is recommended that research in this area continue. Similar to the findings of Davidson et al. (1995), this study seemed to indicate that pictures of elders are an effective tool for studying children’s attitudes toward older adults because the children could easily distinguish among the age groups represented in the study pictures. The procedures used in this study could be replicated with other groups of preschoolers to analyze attitudes toward variables such as race and disabilities.

Professionals in Family and Consumer Sciences should be on the cutting edge of intergenerational programming. Present fiscal constraints mandate that we no long compartmentalize people by age. In addition to financial advantages, individuals of all generations and society as a whole benefit from intergenerational linkages.


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Valerie M. Chamberlain, PhD, is a professor of Family and Consumer Sciences and Nutrition Education at the University of Vermont. Elsie Fetterman, PhD, is a retired senior policy analyst at the Gerontology Institute, University of Massachusetts Margaret W. Maher, MAT, is a preschool teacher in Danvers, Massachusetts

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