The Supreme Court recently heard arguments about whether children should ever be sentenced to life without parole for crimes that don t involve murder. At the heart of this argument lies a complicated question: when should a person be treated as an adult?
Generally, the answer people give is 18 - the age when the United States and the rest of the world considers young people capable of accepting responsibility for their actions. However, there are countless deviations. In the Catholic tradition, many church communities celebrate confirmation, when the young person is in junior high school, or even younger. That ritual is considered an initiation into the adult faith community. In the Jewish community, the bar mitzvah age is also celebrated during early adolescence.
In New York State, it is legally acceptable for a 16-year-old to drop out of school. A sixteen-year-old can obtain a junior license to operate a motor vehicle. One can be 18 to vote, enlist in the military, get married without parental consent and legally get a permit to carry a firearm.
It is also legally permissible for a 16-year-old to run away from home, refuse to return and apply for public assistance and emergency housing. It is not legal for anyone under 21 to purchase alcohol and/or consume it. One has to be 19 to purchase and smoke cigarettes. A 19-year-old cannot rent a car but he can drive our tanks in Afghanistan.
If you really think about it, we are not clear on what age someone is considered an adult. It is our inconsistency that fuels this issue. How old is old enough? Most adults will respond that it depends.
Clearly, the young person in the 21st century is far more developed intellectually and technologically than the young person growing up in the 1980 s. Young people today, at a very early age, are exposed to so much more. Many young people at an early age, for better or for worse, are forced to be self-reliant and independent. Developmentally, however, there are mixed views on whether or not, the young person of today is more mature and socially responsible. Some people would say yes, this generation is more mature and responsible. Others would say absolutely not. They would point to the measurable social data that shows a growing number young adults are out of control relative to drug and alcohol use and crime.
A growing number of adults would make the case that the present generation of teenagers under 21 are socially and emotionally immature. They would make the case based on developmental issues. Teenagers 30 or 40 years ago started working at an earlier age and had to be responsible for taking care of themselves. Little was handed to them. They had to work for whatever they wanted. Right after high school, if they did not go to college, they got a job and started to plan for their future-marriage and raising a family.
Why is this such a complex issue? Part of the problem lies in the growing dysfunction of family life. In the traditional family of 30 years ago, there were assigned tasks that each family member had at an identified age. Those tasks were age-appropriate and a parent or older sibling would help the younger sibling with mastering the task.
In too many families, there are no assigned tasks. Little or nothing is asked of children growing up today. Simple things like making your bed each day, cleaning your room, taking out the trash or helping with the dishes can sometimes be major household issues. Some parents try to engage the children in being responsible on ongoing basis but it ends up being a disaster. So they take the path of least resistance and do those things themselves.
How many high school students don t work or have assigned tasks at home, but still get a generous allowance? Some high school students don t get an allowance, but have access to money for anything social they want to do. In those cases, accountability for spending is almost nonexistent. So it s not surprising that a growing number of young adults are socially irresponsible and lacking accountability.
Parents need to raise the bar. They need to ask and expect more from their children. However, they must be consistent, even if their children s response is not consistent. We also have to be clear in what we re calling forth from our young people. If we want them to act like adults, we must treat them like adults and respect them as adults. We have to stop making excuses for their noncompliant behavior and call them to a higher standard of responsibility and accountability. If we do that, I am convinced they will rise to the occasion.
Recently, I had the opportunity of speaking in the Miller Place School District. During the day, I spoke to students in grades eight through 12. Due to space, the school assemblies took place in their gym. Students sat almost for an hour without fidgeting or talking. Their respect and their silence was deafening. When they were asked to interact, their response was overwhelming.
The issue that was addressed had to do with positive decision-making and standing together as a community to protecting the quality of life. The challenge before them was to build bridges and not walls and not be afraid to stand up and step out for the sake of justice. They were amazing, and their energy that day was contagious.
In the evening, there was a forum for parents. Students were encouraged to return at night with their parents. To the shock of the Board of Education and Superintendent of Schools, more than 700 people packed their middle school gymnasium. Hundreds of students returned with their parents.
We talked about reckless decision making and the use of heroin and other dangerous drugs that are putting our children at risk. During the evening presentation, the silence was deafening. Parents and students alike were challenged to take off the blinders. They were encouraged to begin conversations about strengthening relationships with each other so that together they and the larger community could courageously confront the infectious epidemic of addiction that is ripping at the heart of every community in Suffolk County.
The program ended with everyone standing up, linking arms and joining hands in solidarity, making a statement that people really do care and are willing to commit themselves to protecting the quality of life that we all value.