I might be alone in this. I might be the only person who thinks that this phrase is vile but we’re going to discuss it because I have an opinion, and opinions make for good blog posts (make a great post from a neutral standpoint, I challenge you). I don’t know when I started disliking it, but it occurred to me the other day that I definitely do dislike it and it’s actually quite creepy.
The phrase in question goes thus:
“[…] at the tender age of ______”
Everyone has read/heard/said that phrase somewhere. I think the eagle-eyed among you may even be able to find that very phrase somewhere in the recesses of this blog (I would be interested to know if you can, if anyone who isn’t me can be bothered to look – there are a lot of posts…). It looks pretty innocuous. It’s not rude, it’s quite common, what could possibly be wrong with it?
Well, pull up a chair, my curious little friend, for I am going to tell you. (We’re using our English Lit. degree today, pals, buckle up!)
It all has to do with three things: A) who is saying it, B) who they are saying it to, and C) the word ‘tender’, and we are going to discuss these in reverse order (because the rules of chronology are apparently too hard for me).
‘Tender’ isn’t a horrible word, it’s quite a good word. It can mean gentle, kind-hearted, affectionate, and I have no doubt that when the phrase first came into fashion it was these definitions that were originally meant but that’s where my first problem arises. There is no gentle age. There is no affectionate age. Either you are affectionate and gentle, or you’re not. It’s not age which determines gentleness but experience, which brings me to my next definition.
‘Tender’ can be taken to mean inexperienced. Sure, you can be waxing about how you, at the tender age of five and three quarters were unaware of the trials and foibles you would be put through in your teens, and that is your right, but what about when someone else says it about you? I’m getting ahead of myself. One point at a time, Elou. I suppose I can accept the phrase when it is used in this way. You talking about your inexperienced self. That’s okay. That’ll get a pass.
But let’s look a bit more at ‘tender’. ‘Tender’ is sensitive to pain, ‘tender’ is vulnerable, ‘tender’ is easy to cut or chew. ‘Tender’ is delicious. How many times have you, when asked how the meat you are eating is have praised it as so tender? I have, many times. Now think of talking about a child at a tender age. Shudder.
On to point B. If you’re using the phrase you’re either talking about a child or someone who was a child at the time you are referring to, or you are probably ironically referring to yourself being at a tender age even though you are 32. Again, if you’re talking about yourself, fine. Go ahead, say what you will, enjoy yourself. But saying it about a child, or adolescent is still a bit creepy.
Think about it, you’re pointing out their inexperience, their vulnerability, you are bringing into focus the fact that they are weak and you, in comparison, are strong. The speaker gives themselves the power, which brings me swiftly to point A: who is saying it.
Imagine a professor or teacher, haughty, a middling age, let’s say 40-50. He has a slight paunch and a habit of talking down to people. Now, imagine him talking about a young girl at the tender age of eight.
Tell me that isn’t creepy?
Take into account who he could be talking to, a colleague of equal age? A parent? The child herself? None of these options feel good to me.
Am I the only one who feels this way? Am I just blowing it out of proportion and taking an innocent phrase to a darker place, a place where it has no business being? You decide. Answers on a postcard. Or, you know, in the comments.