Today, kids don’t have a chance to mess up the way we did growing up. Can you imagine getting away with breaking fences at the old Derks Field without being arrested and referred to juvenile court? Or knocking watermelons off the dock at the farmer’s market dock just for fun? And what about hitching trains for the thrill? Today, kids could end up in the “juvie” for that, instead of becoming a juvenile probation officer later on.
There ought to be a moratorium on youth, according to the late Dr. Gisela Konopka, social work professor and an expert on juvenile delinquency. She reminded us that youth are going to make mistakes. It’s part of growing up. What they are after is to get thrills out of risking and “living on the edge.”
Adolescence is a trying and difficult time with body and hormone changes — and search for identity. They are struggling to be adults, yet still dependent. They rebel against authority, especially parents upon whom they depend and from whom they need supervision. And, like all humans, their greatest fear is loss of emotional control. It is often why they turn to the peer group — for control, which may become blind allegiance and dependence. It’s also a time for exploring what it will be like to be an adult, and a time for messing up. Kids will make mistakes; it’s part of growing up, just like falling is to a toddler learning how to walk, while parents watch holding their breath.
Maybe it would be good for society to take a breath as well, and declare a moratorium on youth. Now, life is more fast-paced, more regulated, impersonal and more populated. There is less understanding and less tolerance for disordered behavior. More problematic is when society tries to intervene and makes matters worse. Now, we have five-year-olds labeled as gang members. In the past, informal social controls took care of problem kids; the neighbors called their parents and quick sanctions were imposed. Kids dreaded being sent home from school because punishment would be certain by the parents.
In society’s effort to prevent delinquency and to help youth, we may be doing more harm than good. While it’s important we protect society, and prevent youth crime, let’s put a human face on how we deal with kids, rather than hiding behind policy and pre-determined sanctions. We are often too quick to apprehend them and thus have them enter the correctional system early, and given the label of being damaged goods. They may be referred to juvenile court, placed on probation or referred to the social service network. Let’s deal with kids in what is in their best interest, and society’s, not the institution’s.
By needless bureaucratic intervening in a youth’s life, we may be giving them negative labels that often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Equally insidious is the youth may not get the help they need, thus replacing past neglect with state neglect. Maybe if society understood that doing dumb things is part of growing up, then diverting them from the “social service web” might be best for kids and society.
We don’t know what causes juvenile delinquency, but we do know what’s good for kids — a stable and caring environment, education and having adults who believe in them and have expectations for them to succeed. That worked for many of us. Maybe the moratorium we had growing up ought to be extended to today’s youth.
Utah native John Florez served on the U.S. Senate Labor Committee, as Utah industrial commissioner and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and on the Commission on Hispanic Education. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org