Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Are Small Children's Ages Referred To In Months Instead Of Years?

Here is a mystery.  Why do people, moms in particular, always refer to small children's ages in months instead of years (once there's at least a year to count)?  They are always saying their child is 18 or 23 months old instead of the much simpler "year and a half" or "practically two," whatever.  I mean, isn't that why we have the unit of the year?  And whenever possible, don't we always use the unit of the Mile instead of the Foot, and the Dollar instead of the Dime, and the Gallon instead of the Pint? 

To me it is like an improper fraction, plain and simple. In the arithmetic lessons I was always so bad at, I was always taught to simplify the fractions as much as possible...and I was pretty freaking good at simplifying fractions. I was a fraction-simplifying MONSTER. Writing 10/3 is wrong...everyone is taught to write 3 1/3 instead.   

Even small children, when they have learned to count, choose the unit of years whenever possible. I remember telling people that my baby siblings were "zero" prior to their first birthday, and that was before I ever knew about fractions. Kids know.  Anyone who has had the same number of birthdays is THE EXACT SAME AGE AS YOU. If they turned 7 before you did, then for a period of time they were older, then you caught up once you had your birthday, and you were equals once again. Makes sense to me.

Whenever someone tells me that their child is X number of months old, I am momentarily stunned to silence as I simplify the fraction in my mind. If we have had this interaction personally, I hope I did not seem rude or shocked for some reason to hear that your child was X months old.  It's just that, when presented with an improper fraction such as that, I have to convert it before it can make sense to me.  Another apology: on my end, instead of saying that I am nearly 25 years old, perhaps I should have converted it to YOUR time-unit of choice...which would make me 299 months old.  Hope that helps. 

The only reason I can imagine for this phenomenon is that at such a young age, babies and toddlers have so many packed-together landmarks and proper-development milestones that it is best to be as precise as possible.  I guess if you are talking to a pediatrician or a child therapist, it is good to use months (if this theory of mine is true).  But why do you say it when talking to normal people? And people who aren't moms? And don't kids all develop in different ways, along their own unique timelines? 

If that is all true, then the "nineteen month" thing also contains a sly reference (wasted on me, of course) meant to draw attention to the fact that the child at hand is perhaps sagely beyond his months in emotional development, cognitive skills, or hand-to-mouth coordination.  Do all moms understand these cleverly disguised cues? Maybe one day I will be a part of this elite world where nobody cares about improper fractions, and then maybe I'll refer to MY kid in weeks or minutes just to throw everyone off and make THEM do a little math, quick, in their minds. Then we'll see who can simplify the fractions around here.

No, but really...someone please enlighten me.


  1. Smaller units are more useful for describing small amounts. You wouldn't measure your height in miles, would you? If I see two children under three years old, and I'm curious about their relative ages, it doesn't help much to hear that they are each "one year old". It's far more enlightening to know that one is 14 months old, and the other is 22 months old. That's a difference of more than 50% (not counting gestation, which is usually measured in weeks nowadays). Strictly using years conflates the two.

    And concerning improper fractions -- there is nothing "wrong" about using them, as any mathematician would tell you. Frankly, it is far simpler to work with improper fractions than mixed fractions (e.g. 3 1/3).

    Disclaimer: My wife is a cognitive scientist who studies infant language acquisition, so I am accustomed to hearing terms like "24-month-olds" in reference to groups of test subjects in studies, so perhaps this is why I'm comfortable with the use of months to describe the age of young children.

  2. I stopped asking people how old their children were when all I got in response was a jumble of months thrown in my face. I mean really, do I LOOK like I know what the "landmarks" for a 32 month old child are? how am I supposed to know that at six months they clap, and at eight months they crawl, or whatever.

    I'm glad you wrote this, Nikki. it's been in the back of my mind for a while now, and I'm glad somebody else is as annoyed by it as I am. but then, we're sisters. I guess it sort of makes sense that we'd both be annoyed by the same things.

  3. I'd have to say as I read this that the conclusion you drew is a Mom I would say it's because babies do have SOOO many landmarks and milestones in that first year especially. And that there is a HUGE difference in being 13 months old and 23 months old...they are both 1, but they are so different.
    BUT, I would also agree with your overall conclusion after having a preemie's so hard to say (especially to Momma's who know what babies are supposed to be doing at what age) that my boy is 6 months when he's acting like the 4 1/2 months that he would be had he been born "on time". He medically has a real age (going by birthdate) and an adjusted or fixed age (going by when he should have been born gestationally). So when you ask how old he is how about I cut the difference and say about 5 months? And so, that's when the age thing is sooo frustrating. And if at a year old he's not even crawling, would you like me to tell you he's a year and then have you look at him like he must be handicapped somehow? I think not...
    Anyway, you're right, we are just proud and confusing...and you're right, you probably will do it at some point too. But at least you'll think about it when it's a 45 year old man asking you. :)

  4. I agree with you. I have two children, 1 and 3. When people ask me how old they are, especially, the little one, and I say one, they ask, "One and what?" and I have to sit there and count the months since her last birthday. Odd.