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Act Your Age

September 20, 2010

The other day in the grocery story, I overhead an obviously aggrieved mother hollering at two young boys who were jostling one another (they appeared to be about 5 and 7), “Stop that. Why can’t you two act your age?!?!?!?”  

I had to smile – because that’s precisely what they were doing – acting their age.  Having raised two boys of my own, and witnessed countless others grow up over the years, I could have assured her that pushing, shoving, wrestling, and all manner of boy-against-boy contact are perfectly normal actions for boys that age (for boys of any age, come to think of it).  How, I wondered, was she expecting them to act? 

What does ‘act your age’ actually mean?  Who sets the ‘rules’ for what we are supposed to do and say at any particular stage of our lives? Are there even any real ‘rules’, or are all the you-understood ‘guidelines’ for how people should behave completely arbitrary?  (I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a book entitled, “How to Act at Any Age”.  And, if such a book did exist, it would obviously have to be updated annually because the so-called ‘rules of behaviour’ change so quickly each edition would be out of date by the time it was ready for publication!)

There are, of course, any number of books that detail when a child can be expected to sit, crawl, stand, talk, and so on.  These are all part of normal physical development.  Behavioural expectations – how we ‘act’ – come, instead, from social standards and/or family values.  This means that they are going to vary widely depending on the family you grew up in, your social status, your culture, and your environment (friends, school, media exposure, etc.) 

Pouting child

Me, at 4, pounting on the front step

I was raised in a middle-class family in a middle-class neighbourhood in a mostly middle-class town in southern Ontario.  My father was self-employed, my mother stayed home to raise the children and care for the two grandmothers who lived upstairs, and there was a sixteen year age difference between the oldest and youngest child in the family – so there were slightly different rules of behaviour for each of us in any given circumstance.  Being the fourth child, I likely got away with things my older siblings didn’t, but I still had to behave in an ‘acceptable’ way.

When I was quite young, if I didn’t get my way, I would pout (quite spectacularly, if I do say so myself).  My oldest sister would constantly berate me for this and say, “Why don’t you grow up?”  Well, of course, I WAS growing up all the time, but I think her point was that she (at fifteen) certainly couldn’t sit on the front step pouting in order to get her way (or to get sympathy from passers-by), so why should I be allowed to?

I recall my grandmother being outraged when my mother bought my sister and me our first Barbie dolls when we were six and eight. They were considered ‘teen dolls’ and the target market was girls ten and over (who, yes, actually played with dolls back in the 1950s!)  ‘Little girls’ were supposed to play with ‘baby dolls’ – which we did (occasionally), but Barbies were so much more sophisticated and we felt very ‘grown up’ when we played with them.

By the time I was eleven years old, I was considered ‘old enough’ to babysit my brother’s three children (who were four, two and one). Yet I was still ‘young enough’ to order from the children’s menu at the local restaurant, and get into the movie theatre for fifteen cents (adult admission was thirty-five cents).

(And haven’t we all, at one time or another, lied about our own children’s ages in order to take advantage of a ‘Kids Under 12 Eat Free’ deal, or to save a few dollars on admission to places like Canada’s Wonderland or Disney World?  Of course, when they were 18, we would reprimand them for lying about their ages and trying to buy a case of beer with false ID!!!! Talk about sending mixed messages!)

Girl singing

Not me, but the right age and enthusiasm!

At fourteen, I was given responsibility for the housekeeping money and grocery shopping for the family when my parents went away on a three-week business trip.  That same year I was still required to be home by nine on school nights, and eleven on the weekends (to get even with my parents for making me come home earlier than my friends, I would dance around my room and sing – loudly and off-key – along with Diane Ross and the Supremes and The Doors while my parents tried to listen to the news in the den above my basement bedroom!  They eventually agreed to allow me to stay out until midnight on weekends if I’d just – PLEASE – stop the racket!) 

At seventeen, I was considered ‘too young’ to go to college, but ‘old enough’ to get a full time job. When I was nineteen, my father said I was ‘too young’ to buy a house and take on the mortgage payments, but ‘old enough’ to get married.  And he proclaimed I was ‘too old’ at forty-plus to get divorced and re-invent my life, but he still referred to me as his ‘little girl’.

The movie “The Bucket List” (which I watched just the other night) features two men in their late sixties, dying of cancer, who set out on a whirlwind adventure to do all the things they’ve always wanted to do (before they ‘kick the bucket’).  They go skydiving, stockcar racing, ride a motorcycle on the Great Wall of China, and attempt to climb Mount Everest (among other pursuits).  Were these men ‘acting their age’? Hell, yes!  They were doing exactly what two men of their age in their situation ought to have been doing – getting the most out of the time they had left. 

Isn’t that how we should ALL act – at each and every ‘age’ of our lives – as if every breath we take and every experience we have could be among our last? As if what ‘everybody else’ thinks isn’t the least bit important or relevant to how we behave (providing, of course – and this goes without saying –we aren’t hurting anyone through our actions)?

We are all the ages we have ever been.  Each and every one of them is still inside us.  All the experiences we have had – the ways we have ‘acted’ at every age – collectively make us who we are.  The number of years that have passed has little to do with how we feel about ourselves, or how we should act.  

And so, I’m going to act my age … I will pout when I’m unhappy, play with my (collector) Barbies when I feel like it, take care of whatever babies come my way, dance around my living room and sing (loudly and still very much off-key) along with Tina Turner and Bonnie Tyler, occasionally drive my red sports car just a little too fast on the back roads, check activities off my own ‘bucket list’, and continue to re-invent my life here on … the other side of 55.

Go fast!

There is NO "Age Limit" for things we want to do!

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