Monday, August 03, 2009

When does childhood end?

Lots of people have discussed the debacle that was Kyle and Jackie O's interrogation of a 14yr old last week. If you have been living under a rock (or you know, just in another country), Lauredhel gave a good early analysis of it, and Hexy gave a good round up of it today. However, there's been something niggling at me about the coverage of the whole thing. This girl is 14 and people keep calling her a "child".

Clearly she is a minor, and therefore I agree without hesitation with all the condemnation of every single adult involved in the whole sordid event, including, as Hexy points out, any audience member who ever tuned into this show intentionally.

However, every time she is called a child I cringe. Teenagers are not children, nor are they adults. The increasing tendency to infantilise teens may even have contributed to this situation - the fact that anyone (including the mother) felt that the mother had the right to over-ride her daughter's wishes shows that we don't afford teenagers sufficient respect. We also don't expect nearly enough of them.

There is plenty of reason not to regard teenagers as adults - it seems pretty clear that their brains are busy being rewired, and that the rewiring doesn't happen in the best possible order for ensuring good judgement and sensible behaviour. For this reason, I strongly object to trying teens as adults before the law - they've not yet graduated to adult privilege or responsibility. (I actually think we handle crime committed by minors very badly in almost every respect, but if I get into that this post will never end.)

However, they are no longer children either - they don't think like children and they don't feel like children. They are adults-in-training, and should be treated as such. Just like any traineeship, a lot of guidance is required in the beginning, slowly handing over more responsibility and higher expectations. Or actually, given the way things seem to be at the moment, not so slowly. So little is expected of teenagers, they often aren't even expected to manage their own homework.

It seems that we only have two settings, child or adult. And we oscillate randomly between the two in the way that we treat teens. Child when we want to protect them, excuse them or control them. Adult when we want to judge them or condemn them. It's hardly a surprise that many don't behave as responsibly or acceptably as society would like - or even as would be good for them.

I like Stephen Biddulph's portrayal of teens as apprentices, and I particularly like his suggestion that teens need adult mentors that are not their parents. I don't see why he thinks it applies primarily to boys, or that sports coaches seem to be the only candidates that regularly get mentioned in this context, but that's no reason to let a good idea go. I'm hoping my kids will find themselves adults they can trust and relate to when they hit that age. Aunts, uncles, family friends, bosses, co-workers, people involved in other social stuff (maybe I can get Elissa into belly dancing!), whatever. I want to enable such a relationship, but not engineer it - it's for them and should be at their instigation. One of the reasons I am a fan of this plan is that I am not entirely convinced I will be able to follow my own advice if I am their primary confidant. So if you know my kids, and you ever find yourself in this role, please don't tell me what they get up to, I won't want to know.

I won't be calling that 14yr old a child, she is a minor and deserves appropriate protection, but also appropriate respect and expectations. The last of those has no relevance to this incident, but who knows what part it played in her relationship with her mother?


  1. "They are adults-in-training, and should be treated as such. "

    Well, hm. In my defence, this is how I view pre-teen and younger children, too. I don't see them as unworthy of respect, or free from expectations. I totally take your point, however, that lots of people do, and well said at that.

  2. Thanks, and yes, sorry, you did use the word "child", but it didn't trigger my response, it was more some of the commenters on your post, and some of the people I have spoken to face to face.

  3. One of the things I couldn't quite understand was why on earth, if she didn't want to be there, her mother had been able to get the poor girl to so much as enter the studio. Because I imagine getting a 14 year old to do something like that if they really didn't want to would be nigh-on impossible. So it seemed clear to me that both the mother and the girl have some serious problems that need addressing.

    This is also why I lay the primary blame at the feet of the people making the show, because they are the ones exploiting these vulnerable people.

  4. As for the teen mentoring thing, I promise not to tell you anything! Not that I'm at all likely to be privy to anything interesting :-)

  5. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that adolescence is a somewhat new concept.

    I think in the past, there was just childhood and then adulthood.

    Here. This website has a little info on it:

    They say that some people believe that the concept of adolescence was started to delay adulthood. Why? Because jobs were scarce and they wanted to keep people out of the workforce.

    It seems to me that this stage of life keeps increasing. It doesn't seem like the teen years end at eighteen anymore. People are getting married at an older age. People are having children later. There's this whole "young adult" stage now, and it doesn't seem much different from the teen years.

    Should a fourteen be treated like a child or adult? I think it depends when in history they exist.

  6. Yes, Dina, teenagers are a recent invention but then so is our knowledge of brain development. I should have put some stuff in this post about the historical perspective - I was thinking about it.

    You are correct, people have been regarded as adults from 13 or 14 historically, but they were still pretty closely mentored at that age. Boys were apprenticed or in other ways inducted into manhood and they had someone to guide and supervise them through their younger years. Girls went into the household of their mother-in-law and only slowly got any responsibility (or freedom).

    I think formally acknowledging the transition from childhood to adulthood as its own phase is a step forward, and I also think we'll identify a lot more phases of development right through life as our understanding of the brain increases. I also think we need to focus on the special skills each phase has, as well as its limitations.

    But I also agree completely that the "young adult" phase is treated much like what the teens should be. We treat teens like children, so people don't really start transitioning to adults until they are 18, and it still takes 8 to 10 years! And this isn't a "You of today" rant - I am completely guilty of not really growing up until I was 25. In fact, I think you and I may have agreed on this point previously. :)

    Worse still, this wasn't because my parents treated me as a child when I was a teenager, it really was just that the prevailing social norms didn't expect me to grow up until then. Which makes it hard to know how to fight against it as a parent...

  7. As someone with a rising teen (sometimes called a "wween"), I find this conversation fascinating. "Adults-in-training" might be the best way for me to think about it... easier said than done though... when she acts like such a b-a-b-y. Thanks for the food for thought.