What does it mean to be a man? Do you wake up on the morning of your eighteenth birthday, that year we have designated as being close enough, and all of a sudden you have been transformed? At 18 we as a society have decided you are mature enough to fight in a war (though how much maturity that takes is debatable), you are reasoned enough to vote, to marry, to enter contracts. You can’t drink of course for three more years so is 18 the transitional man and 21 the real man? At 18 you can be sentenced to life in prison, or death in many states if you commit certain crimes. That is the age at which you are an adult for purposes of the criminal justice system, except when we decide it’s not and we make you an adult because that better justifies our anger, our rage and our vindictiveness. I use the words ‘us,’ ‘our’ and ‘we’ loosely here.
Here’s the thing, I live with a 14 year old boy so I have a fair amount of anecdotal experience in the world of young men. Sometimes he says and does things that are profoundly mature. And sometimes he does things and you say, “what were you thinking?” and he says, rather quietly and sullenly and perhaps under his breath, “I don’t know,” or “I wasn’t” and both of those are true. The miracle of science can actually show us that the part of the brain in a 14 year old that is supposed to do consequential thinking doesn’t work! It is learning how to work in adolescence but it isn’t functional yet. For some people, for various reasons it never gets fully functional. How sad, and how important to remember.
Imagine watching an eighteen month old toddling down the street and then getting mad at them, punishing them even because they aren’t able to run. Ridiculous you might say, because it is ridiculous to expect an eighteen month old who can barely walk well to be able to run. Then why, I ask, do we expect children to be able to think well when they don’t have the ability to do that kind of high-level processing?
My 14 year old boy does not look like a man. He still looks like a boy which perhaps make it a little easier to understand or accept when he does stupid things. There are 14 year olds out there who physically are fully grown, or close at any rate, and look like men. Don’t judge a book by the cover as they say; the body may be grown, the brain is on its own schedule. Even before I had my very own adolescent boy this was something I thought about, every time in fact that there is an article in the paper about a teenaged boy doing a terrible thing and the calls to ‘try him as an adult’ are raised from the angry mob I think about this and my heart breaks a little.
I’m not sure I agree that 18 is the age of majority. Maybe for girls but not for boys. We should probably give boys until 22 just to be safe – not to have them living at home mind you, but just until we expect them to be fully responsible. Which doesn’t take away from the terrible things that sometimes happen, I know that and I know too that there have to be consequences. But a 14 year old, a fifteen year old – sometimes they ‘do’ and they do not ‘know.’ Sometimes they ‘do’ and they do not ‘think.’ Certainly they need help, they need guidance and rehabilitation and structure and an opportunity to learn. Locking someone up for the rest of their life for something they did when they were fourteen may make us feel better when we focus on the crime, may feel justified when we look at the person, but inside is a boy, just a boy and we need to remember that too.