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How to Create Irresponsible Teenagers

Dennis Fox

Springfield State-Journal-Register
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 sense.

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.

teenage alcohol sting operations

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