Don't treat teens like babies, they can handle challenges and responsibilities

by Dr. Helen Smith

A 14-year-old boy in Jacksonville, Fla., recently was accused of repeatedly stabbing an 8-year-old girl. He entombed her body in his waterbed. Elsewhere in Florida, 15-year-old Stephen Etheredge, along with some friends, waited for Stephen's father to return from work. They choked him with his belt and killed him. After being arrested, Stephen told authorities that he would "do it again." Around the nation last year, several teens took the lives of teachers and students by opening fire on their unsuspecting victims.

What do all of these killers have in common? All were between the ages of 11 and 15 when they committed their crimes. The Office of Juvenile Justice found that while the overall rate of juvenile crime has not increased, 13- to 14-year-olds have been involved in more crime over the last few years. What accounts for the change?

One interesting possibility comes from what experts call the "maturity gap." The maturity gap is the discrepancy between biological maturity and social maturity. In other words, there is a long lag between the time young people hit puberty and the time they are assigned adult status. In modern society, this gap is widening significantly: Kids are hitting puberty at earlier ages than ever before, yet they are being treated as children at ages that would have been considered grown-up only a few decades ago.

Picture the typical 13- to 15-year-old. He or she is about to enter or already is in high school. All adult avenues are cut off. Work basically is impossible at that age. Young teens are not able to drive, and the driving age is being raised in some states. They are restricted from smoking until age 18, even though their counterparts 20 years ago could smoke with abandon. (Interestingly, fewer teens smoked 20 years ago, because smoking, though permitted, was seen as uncool. Now, because it is forbidden, it is seen as rebellious and, therefore, cool.)

Youngsters are told not to have sex at a time when their hormones are raging. Teen curfews, increasingly popular, keep them cooped up. Imagine your frustration at 13 when you realize that these infantilizing restrictions will continue until you are at least 18 - a period equal to almost half your life to date.

Work is out of the question. Large businesses won't hire you because of regulations and fear of lawsuits. And most ordinary people won't hire kids to mow lawns or baby-sit anymore, either. Think about it: When was the last time you let a 12- or 13-year-old baby-sit your young children alone? Even 15 or 20 years ago, pre-teens and young teens routinely baby-sat several children at a time. That was a chance to learn responsibility that is denied today's teens.

Now look at those young people who have gained access to the adult world. Today, the only teens who are taken seriously are criminals. One teenager even commented after the Springfield, Ore., school shooting, "The only time anyone takes a 16-year-old seriously is when he picks up a gun."

Look at the attention these violent teens receive. They have access to high-prestige adults such as attorneys, journalists and mental health workers. The world is watching them. Their life stories are on the news. It's no wonder that they have spawned so many copycats.

Nor are these problems limited to big-ticket murders. Even smaller-scale acts of rebellion, such as robbery or burglary, can go tragically wrong. As a forensic psychologist, I have seen many young lives ruined by one impulsive act of rebellion that led to murder or injury to another person. A teen with less drastic ways of proving his or her adulthood might have acted differently.

So what can we do to keep these young teens from such acts? The majority of adolescents will commit crimes only as long as it is rewarding. This means that we must reward young people for being responsible. Instead, we are treating all of them as babies or criminals. Not surprisingly, that's what we increasingly are getting in return.

Unfortunately, our political leaders aren't showing much maturity in dealing with the problem. Rather than addressing real issues, they produce simplistic solutions, such as "zero tolerance" and "three strikes" - bogus solutions, obviously designed to help adults avoid responsibility. These policies simply confirm teens' suspicions about adult hypocrisy.

We need to find a way to bridge the maturity gap by helping adolescents feel more like adults, not less. It seems like a paradox, but just like giving caffeine to a hyperactive child calms them down, giving teens more access to the adult world and more adult privileges might inspire them to act more like a grownup. Responsibility, after all, must be learned.

Tuesday, December 15, 1998 The Plain Dealer Cleveland, OH