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This paper adopts a rhetorical perspective in order to examine language about children in the discourse of mathematics education through a study of metaphor. Previous research has tended to emphasize the notion of 'beliefs', which locates responsibility for problematic conceptions of children within the heads of individuals, particularly practising and preservice teachers. Using the notion of metaphor, this paper examines several texts in US mathematics education, including conversations in an elementary classroom, a university mathematics methods classroom, mathematics textbooks, and standards documents. All of these texts draw on the metaphor of children's learning as travel along a physical path, which supports talking and thinking about children in hierarchical ways. The dominance of this metaphor presents a new challenge for teacher educators concerned with equity: that of examining their own language and practices for hierarchical language.