Thursday, February 23, 2012

Public Service Announcement: Leap Year Birthdays

“I’m almost four!”

When a grown-up asks a child how old they are they usually ask because they love the way their face lights up or the way they hold up the appropriate number of fingers, proud that they know the right answer, but also proud that they are getting older, getting bigger. 
Living in a world designed for incomprehensible giants--door handles at head height, sinks and toilets you have to climb on to, sentences riddled with words that sound like gibberish--it is no wonder that kids always want to be bigger, older. 
They create imaginary worlds where they can work out the adult world in their pretend play. We encourage their desire to grow up as we mark their growth on the wall, celebrate when they are "big girls," and promise "When you are ____ years old, you can do ______." So, naturally, they can’t wait to get to the next number. Do you remember how cool it was to be in the double digits? Or reached the teens?!
We define our age based on how many years we've completed. I am just about to complete my 34th year, and when I do I will say I'm 34 years old. Not quite as exciting any more, but true none the less. People born on February 29th age the same as every one else. Just because their birth date is missing from the calendar 3 out of 4 years does not mean they have not completed the year just as the rest of us have. Legally, on years without a February 29, their age changes on February 28th.  In the US, this doesn't affect getting a driver's license (because 16 is a multiple of 4, and thus falls on a leap year), but decreases the wait to vote and buy cigarettes and alcohol, rent a car, and get your senior’s discount, by one day.
Children are concrete thinkers. Magnolia works hard every day to make sense of the world, looking for patterns and creating definitions. She is black and white, and very precise. 
It is cruel to joke with a young leapling about their age. From a factual point of view, it is false and therefore very difficult for these concrete thinkers to reconcile. From an emotional angle, it is pushing them down when they want to be celebrating an achievement toward their goal -- to get bigger. 
These jokes are (arguably) funny from an adult perspective because as abstract thinkers we understand the concept of time, and how the earth's revolution around the sun necessitates a Leap Day every four years. Many of us struggle with getting older, so the idea of someone only "aging" every four years is humorous, and maybe attractive. I believe the majority of people don’t mean to cause pain or find pleasure in putting other people down, which is why I share this public service announcement. 
Magnolia is a leap year baby and she turns 4 next Wednesday(!) As her mother, and an adult, I've grinned and bared all the inaccurate jokes about her age the last four years. I haven't worried about it too much because the jokes have been beyond her comprehension so she has, for the most part, ignored them. 
But the fact is, she is getting older, and understands much more of the world around her. As we get to know her personality, and see it so closely resemble mine as a child, I know these jokes will, at best, be frustrating and confusing, but also because of her sensitive spirit they will probably be painful. Maybe not every leap baby has this same personality and sensitive spirit, but knowing about child development, I know jokes about their age will be the opposite of what they need and want. 
So I ask, if you love my daughter, or any other youngster that shares her birthday, refrain from adult jokes about age at their expense and celebrate the accomplishment of completing another year, just like the rest of us. At least hold off until she is 64 when she might not mind being 16 again!


Anonymous said...

I've been telling everyone not to joke with her about something that can only be confusing (and potentially hurtful) to her at this age. I was wondering when you would post something on the subject. As always, you've handled it nicely!

Anonymous said...

You are such an amazing Mama, Shannon. Very well said. I remember always feeling so much older when I got to add the "1/2" onto my age...because 6 1/2 felt so much older than 6. :)

I hope Maggie has a fantastically fun forth birthday! :)

Love, Natalie