How to Create Irresponsible
March 1, 1998
Public policy toward teenagers is inconsistent. All too often we try
to make teenagers more responsible by treating them like children. Not
only doesn't this work, but because the resulting mixed message is difficult
to decipher, the effort generally backfires and makes things worse.
Rejecting a century-old assumption that kids are more redeemable than
adults, the United States Congress and the Illinois Legislature have moved
to treat more juvenile offenders as adults. Why? Because, say the legislators,
the kids are old enough to know what they're doing. If they choose to
break the law, they deserve to pay the penalty. The U. S. Supreme Court
says 16-year olds can be executed, and the age for other forms of punishment
has moved even lower.
Although the legislative and judicial trend is largely an effort to appease
a frightened public, it is not entirely unreasonable. Most kids older
than 13 or 14 know the difference between right and wrong and can consider
the consequences of their actions about as well (or as poorly) as their
elders. Parents know this without reading the research comparing teenage
and adult cognitive abilities. And teenagers know it, including most of
those who are violent as well as the vast majority who are not violent.
So mandating long-term consequences for violent teenagers makes some
Still, that's not the whole story. For one thing, excessively harsh punishment
doesn't seem to work that well with adults either. Agreeing that teenagers
and adults should be treated more alike doesn't really tell us what that
treatment should be.
It also doesn't consider that violent young people might indeed be more
redeemable if we reduced long-standing societal strains and inequities.
Or that juveniles on average don't yet have an adult-like sense of their
legal rights when they are charged with a crime.
More to the point, though, despite our telling kids they're old enough
to behave themselves, we too often give them exactly the opposite message.
Time after time we tell teenagers they are not responsible human beings
capable of choosing between right and wrong. If we don't expect them to
act maturely, why should they try?
One example is the Springfield School Board's recent plan to require
children (and eventually teenagers) to wear uniforms. Perhaps when teenagers
have little opportunity to control their education or their daily lives
it seems reasonable to treat them like children. But it hardly provides
useful experience in making meaningful decisions.
Similarly, the Springfield High School principal who cancelled a school
play rather than allow a girl to play a male part had the legal power
to do so. It was the director, however, who respected the ability of his
teenage actors to act as adults.
Other examples abound. More and more communities impose curfews on people
under 18. Some states revoke drivers licenses of high school dropouts.
Pregnant girls often need parental or judicial permission to obtain an
abortion. Teenagers under 18 cannot vote even if they understand better
than their parents the political issues they study in school. Kids caught
with cigarettes in Rochester now pay a fine. Alcohol, which was available
at 18 partly to let people old enough to die in Vietnam have a beer first,
is now again illegal until 21.
The list goes on, and its length doesn't really surprise us. Even those
who support these and similar policies must acknowledge that the rules
reflect a lack of trust that most kids will do the right thing. We protect
them, and we control them, and we let them know we don't have much faith
in them. We don't expect much from them other than following our rules.
But simply following rules is not a sign of real maturity. Neither is
imposing rules on others just because we can, or because we tell ourselves
it's for their own good.
Isn't there an inconsistency here? Between "they aren't mature enough
yet to make decisions" and "they're mature enough to be treated as adults
when they make bad decisions"?
Teenagers get the worst of both worlds. We treat them like adults when
we want to punish them. And we treat them like children when they want
to do something we don't like. What we don't do is treat them like maturing
people learning to make their way through life, making some mistakes along
the way just like the rest of us.
Should teenagers be held accountable? Sure. But first let's give them
some real power over their lives and a realistic chance that their decisions
will make a difference.
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