Wondering what exactly people mean when they say age is just a number – ‘AIJAN’ for short – I spammed friends’ inboxes for help. Among the explanations I got was the one which said that the age does not determine the level of maturity.
I have issues with that word maturity, but I need it now, so I’ll quickly get its definition out of the way as best as I can. I find Oxford’s definition that it is ‘the quality of thinking and behaving in a sensible, adult manner’ unsatisfactory because it raises the question: What is a ‘sensible, adult manner’? Few other references’ definitions came with similar problems, so I settled for description instead. Maturity would be that period in a man (or woman’s) life where he has gained control over his emotions and behaviour, can take sounder decisions, and make more rational plans after taking stock of a wider scope of variables. It would be that time where he feels more in charge of his environment, having amassed a wealth of experience, is more knowledgeable at the present than he was before; the strength of his egotism should, hopefully, have whittled away, and recklessness and misguided pigheadedness would be streaks of the past.
Now note that we will not be looking at age in the arithmetically progressive sense – one, two, three…nine, ten – but in the sense that has to do with the phases of human development, which would be a cluster of years. We begin with studies that scientifically tie advancement in years to evolvement of a mature mind, and leading the pack of work in human development is Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development where he lays out four periods through which a child passes to mature cognitively from infancy to age 11. The first (birth–2 years), known as the Sensorimotor Period, sees the child’s mental activity focused on only sensory functions – seeing, hearing, touching. He can form schemas (ideas) only of objects that are present; anything out of reach of his vision, hearing, and hands ceases to exist. Out of sight is out of mind. Anytime from 4 months, the child gradually begins to be able to form mental pictures of things not present. By 24 months, this would have been perfected. He can now find hidden objects, begin to think for the first time, create, and use symbols to represent things not there – which is when he is able to draw and talk. This is the first half of the second phase called the Preoperational period. In the second half of this same period (age 4–7), the child’s thinking faculties have developed further but is illogical – based mainly on guesses, intuition and hands-on experience. Whatever he has not experienced he has a wrong – often bizarre – idea of.*1 He has not developed what Piaget called ‘conservation’ – the ability to recognize that the important properties of a substance remain the same despite changes in shape. So when presented with equal amounts of water in two glasses – one tall and thin, the other short and wide – he assumes the taller glass contains more water. It’s at the third stage called the concrete operational stage (ages 6/7) that this is corrected and the child is able to do simple logic and can think beyond what he sees. By the fourth stage – the formal operational stage (from 11 up) – the child can speculate, relate statements and events one to another, and manipulate variables in a scientific experiment.
Although aspects of this theory have been found to have problems and therefore superseded by more recent research, Piaget’s work is still helpful in understanding the cognitive changes that occur with the passage of time.
Anyway, let’s look at Erik Erikson who, in 1968, developed a chart of Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development through which an individual (not just a child now) must pass from infancy to late adulthood. In each stage the person encounters, and hopefully, masters new challenges, else problems might occur in the future. In the first stage (infancy–18 months), the child is only concerned with his basic needs of food, warmth and care, which should be regularly met by parents or other caregivers to win his trust in the world. In stage two (2–4 years) he begins to explore his surroundings and develop first interests. A child who will love to sing may begin to make sustained speech sounds in imitation of music he hears. He has gained increased muscular coordination and mobility, has been toilet-trained, and is now able to meet some of his needs by himself. He is trying to be independent, which should be monitored and encouraged to build confidence. By the next stage (age 3–5), he begins to take initiative and wants to do things for a purpose. Minute by minute, he is getting curious about everything… Let’s quickly skip to stage six (13–19 years), which we know contains the problematic teenage years, where the child struggles with his identity, role in society, and image before others; the years of clumsiness, sudden emotional withdrawals, rebellion, and unapologetic hormones. S/he is maturing physically, emotionally and intellectually, moving from child to woman/man, and the adjustment is anything but smooth.
Piaget said that ‘the thinking of infants is qualitatively different from the thinking of children, and the thinking of children is qualitatively different from that of adolescents – because they are at different stages of development. Thus, children are not miniature adults and they are not dumber than adults; they just think in completely different ways.’*2 In your spare time, compare this statement to Paul’s from the Christian Bible: ‘When I was a child I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.’*3
The argument that a 13-year-old can reason like, or better than, a 30-year-old is flawed. Occasions of cleverness on the part of the young – where he might even offer solution to an adult’s problems – and moments of petulance or poor judgment on the part of the adult are not enough to write off the value of the older person’s years of experience which the younger person has yet to acquire. Being intelligent, and being mature must not be confused; the latter includes the former and surpasses it. Again, recent studies show that the older we grow the wiser we get. This is due, in part, to increase in myelin – a fatty white coating on the brain’s cells which insulate them and make the signals between them move faster.
From middle- to old age, our brains become less susceptible to dopamine (the hormone in charge of the brain’s reward and pleasure centres which can induce impulsiveness); then our ability to make accurate judgments about people, jobs and finances sharpen. While younger people often use one side of their brains, older people are able to use both hemispheres of the same organ, an event known as bilateralisation. It is true – yet not contradictory of the above fact – that with age comes the tendency to easily forget names (nothing to do with Alzheimer’s), and that the brain shrinks, but doesn’t this also go to prove that getting older means something?
At given stages in a person’s life there are levels of reasoning he has outgrown and others he has yet to attain. I’ve been writing for 13 years – and have kept all the records; yesterday, I picked up something I wrote when I was 17 about ant colonies and human society. The difference in reasoning and style was clear as clean water; the way I wrote some sentences made me fondly embarrassed. (Ever heard that before?) Is it that I wasn’t reading good, ‘mature’ books then? You wish! Yet…
Two decades plus from now, I will be in my forties; whatever I write then should sound very different from what I am writing now. It might be the same ideas, but then, as a man with three strands of white on my chest, the things I’d see sitting at my desk would be the same things I don’t quite see now as I pen this from Mount Patti. (For the attention of my co-creative writers, I once read in/at two different places and times that (i) your writing sucks when you are a teen, and (ii) that many people who write novels should have, at least, clocked thirty. Discussion for later; for now, you must see where these assertions are coming from, yes?)
You’d think that age not being that important, people would treat it with flippancy and call it from the rooftops. For where? Peeps are so self conscious about divulging it. On the social network, no one wants to show his year of birth, yet they give other vital info that could put them at risk security-wise! You go to birthday parties, and the celebrant insists she is ‘plus-one’ today. If you like press for specifics from today till the next birthday, you will only be wasting your time.
We move on to interactions among individuals; notice that the moment this begins to get sour and temperamentally rough, count five things that would likely become issues and age gap would feature. That is when one party suddenly realizes that that other guy talking to him ‘anyhow’ is a ‘small boy’ – Is it because we are in the same class?…work in the same office? Some people even take refuge in age to hide their low self-esteem. Activities they don’t feel confident engaging in become labeled, For Kids.
School curriculum planners consider what the human mind can carry at different phases of life. There is the stage where we learn of magic squares and how to spell boy, and there is the stage we start to learn LCM and cultural festivals. It would be wicked to introduce binary numbers in primary 4. Education is a process; jump a step and you will likely wobble in the succeeding step – at least for some time. I think we hinted at this earlier?
Enter the world of fashion, and the term ‘age-appropriateness’ cannot be overlooked. Recently I updated on my Facebook – Look at this old man wearing skinny jeans! – and came under attack from a pal for being judgmental. Fine; but while we argued, I told him that simply because an item of clothing has hit boutiques near you doesn’t mean it is meant for you. Among the questions you might want to ask yourself before making a purchase, include the question of the age bracket for which that wear has been designed. Producers of anything, anything at all, always have a target audience in mind. Do you belong in it? What would a 50-year-old woman need a backless dress for? What will my father look like in a My-Money-Grows-On-Trees t-shirt, no matter how trim he looks? It’s the same us that say, Act your age.
Rightly or wrongly, age defines us. It is a joiner, having the power to make our pieces, as it were, fall into place. You must have observed that the second you learn of somebody’s age, that spool in your mind that is forever rolling zaps back to past encounters with this person, reviewing the films and treating them by adding a perspective to the picture that wasn’t there before, which is the tallying of this person’s exhibitions to what we subconsciously expect them to be at the given stage of life.
Let me concede here that at some point in life, our maturity levels reach parity. Then the younger ones have caught up with the older ones who do not have a hell of a lot more development in perception to do to become persons more complex than who they are now. So, while a 20- and a 30-year-old are not equals in maturity, a fifty- and sixty-year-old are. Technically.
One of those whose views I sampled said that AIJAN is either a senseless statement or a meaningful one, which got me thinking in terms of language. Do we just say things just because they can be said, whether they mean anything or not? Do these statements – did they ever – hold any import worth a drop of spittle? Or is this one of those times the word cliché calmly slips into the mind? ■
*1Bernstein, et al (1994) Psychology (3rd ed).
*2 Same as above.
*3 First Corinthians, Chapter 13, verse 11.