Saturday, March 8, 2008


One of the reasons why, at least in theory, children have lesser rights and obligations than adults is that they lack the capacity to appreciate the risks attendant to their acts and forbearances. The law treats minors differently than adults primarily for that reason. In New York, for example, when a child commits a crime, he is generally tried in Family Court and, if found guilty, adjudicated as a juvenile delinquent rather than a convicted felon. For teenagers tried for certain crimes in Supreme Court, a judge can vacate the conviction and substitute a youthful offender finding. Both juvenile delinquents and youthful offenders receive lesser sentences, sealed records, and eventual expungement (absent recidivism).

Incapacity is not strictly a defense to a crime, but it is a mitigating factor in establishing mens rea, i.e., the mental culpability attendant to the criminal act, or actus reus. In terms of civil liability, incapacity again is not a complete defense, i.e., one cannot escape civil liability based on incapacity any more than a criminal can avoid some sort of punishment (i.e., commitment to a state psychiatric facility) if he is, for example, legally insane.

Many civil cases, such as contract and property disputes, require courts to balance the equities and determine, in the face of competing interests and claims, which one is more important and why. Civil litigants come to court each claiming that his interest should outweigh that of his opponent, but obviously both cannot win; in the end, one interest must be subordinate to the other. The court will look to, among other things, legal precedent, social convention, public policy and basic fairness to determine which interest the courts, and by extension society, will protect and which it will not.

One thing which is indispensably true of adolescents is that many of them lack the capacity to perceive or appreciate countervailing interests. This is really just another way of saying what I've probably written before, that teenagers can't tell the difference between what they want and what they are entitled to. To a teenager, there is no difference; wanting something, or having an interest in it, is enough for that thing to translate automatically into an absolute right, and there can be no convincing them otherwise. If they want something, or to be more precise feel a desire to do something, then they may do it, regardless of the situation or context. No mechanism in their minds will cause them to consider that it might be better to refrain from that behavior, because it might be more important that they not do it, or that they do something else, at that particular moment. They do not perceive that there are other interests besides their own that exist, and that may outweigh their own immediate wants.

Allow me to illustrate.

For one period per day, I am assigned to supervise the in-house suspension room (called the "SAVE room," though I don't know what SAVE stands for) at my school. Students who are not in proper dress code, who are thrown out of class, etc. are placed in the SAVE room by the Deans, with instructions to obtain and complete work from their teachers. Students assigned to the SAVE room are, for obvious reasons, required to stay there during the actual class period; they may not come and go as they please, nor wander about the building as if they have the period free.

A few weeks ago, about halfway through the class period, I had a student ask me if she could leave the SAVE room to get a newspaper. I initially told her no. I'll try to reconstruct the rest of the conversation (T=me, S=student):

S: Excuse me, can I go get a newspaper?
T: Why do you need a newspaper?
S: Because I need to occupy myself.
T: Do you have work from your teachers?
S: I'm done.
T: [picking up a book of Greek myths from the table] Here, you can read this.
S: Excuse me! Can I go get a newspaper?
T: [pointing to the bookcase in the back of the room] There's a whole shelf full of books back there; you can find something to read on there.
S: Excuse me! Can I go get a newspaper?
T: No, you may not.
S: Why?!
T: Because you are required to be here. You are not allowed to be wandering around the building socializing; this is not a free period.
S: I'm not going to walk around the building, I'm just going to get a newspaper and come right back.
T: Well, there is plenty of reading material here.
S: Excuse me! Can I go get a newspaper?

This went on for another minute or two, and the student again swore up and down that she would go straight to get the newspaper and come right back. Finally, begrudgingly, I told her, "Fine. You have two minutes. Go," and started my chronograph.

Needless to say, fifteen minutes later, she still had not returned and I informed the Dean. The next period, the Dean brought the child by my classroom to give me a sneering, insincere "apology." I asked her for what she was apologizing, and she said, "For coming back late." Never mind that she had not actually come back to the SAVE room at all. I asked, "Is that all?" and she replied, "Yeah, that's all, I didn't do nothing wrong!"

Despite its futility, I attempted to explain to this child that she had, indeed, done several things wrong. In addition to being unable to take no for an answer, she had actually done the very thing which she had promised not to do, the very thing I had intended to prevent her from doing by denying her permission to leave in the first place, not to mention lied to me about her intentions. When I asked her why she had persisted in asking to leave after I told her no, all she could say was, "I wanted to get a newspaper." As if that, in and of itself, and nothing else, was enough. The child had no perception at all that any interest (least of all school safety and discipline) existed but her own immediate desire.

After explaining that her mere desire to do something did not entitle her to do it, I asked her why she had gone and wandered about the building after she had promised not to do so, and why she had lied to me. She replied that these actions (hers particularly, and as a general matter) were "not a big deal," or words to that effect. Students often justify inappropriate or impermissible behavior by minimizing its importance, another symptom of their incapacity to perceive or appreciate countervailing interests. (Ever seen a child damage or destroy someone else's property, then get annoyed with the owner for being upset and say "It's just a ____," implying that the destroyed item has minimal or no value?) I replied to this contention as I always do: "That is not your call to make. You do not get to decide what is a 'big deal' and what isn't. You don't get to make that decision. You do not get to substitute your judgment for mine. When you have the responsibilities I have, then you can make those decisions. Not until then." I told her bluntly that what she had done was dishonest, selfish, arrogant, insulting, and wrong.

This anecdote, I'm sad to say, is hardly atypical. I have observed in recent years a troubling epidemic of children making up their own rules, deciding for themselves what they may and may not do. Kids cannot take no for an answer and cannot accept this simple, logical premise: If you have to ask permission to do something, then by definition you are not entitled to do it. Having to ask permission implies and necessitates the possibility, if not the likelihood, that such permission will be denied. The same thing happens when a student hands me a permission form for a school trip, which all of their teachers must approve. There are spaces on these forms for teachers to check, labeled "A" and "D" (Approve or Deny). When a student hands me the form, I look up his grade average on the computer; if he is failing, I check "D." The student then pitches a fit, unable to understand why I would do such a thing, unable to understand the simple premise cited above.

I count myself fortunate to be in a school where I can tell students things they don't want to hear without being put through the wringer by parents and administrators. By and large, my colleagues and administration understand these things and, for the most part, feel the same way. The parents here are generally supportive as well, although there are always exceptions (see, e.g., this blog entry). But I have been in places where I could never do this, where I could never tell students the truth about themselves, where I could never hold students accountable for their actions or forbearances, nor enforce any reasonable rules in any reasonable way, because at the end of the day, the parents and administration in those places always gave students the benefit of the doubt. This was true in the Long Island school where I taught briefly in 2001-02, and the corrupt, fraudulent so-called "School of the Arts" in Queens where I taught the year after that.

An unfortunate by-product of the adolescent incapacity to appreciate countervailing interests, and to distinguish desire from entitlement, is that they also cannot tell the difference between when a teacher is being fair and reasonable in enforcing a particular rule against the student's desires, or pointing out inappropriate behavior, and when the teacher is being "rude" or "mean." Students accuse me of being "rude" all the time, whenever I deny a request, bring attention to their own inappropriate behavior, express annoyance therewith, or otherwise tell them things they don't want to hear. For example, recently a student, whom I don't know and is not in any of my classes, walked into my classroom near the end of the last period of the day, while I was still teaching my lesson; she did not knock, excuse herself or ask permission to enter, she just came right in and called out a question across the room to one of my students. I said to her something to the effect of, "Would you please wait outside until class is over?" To which she replied, "Why you gotta be so rude?!?!"

Is it really worth it, in a case like this, to try to explain to a child that barging into a teacher's classroom, interrupting a lesson, and shouting out loud across the room, is rude? That if you do such a thing, the teacher has every right to be annoyed with you and express that annoyance? Again, the student demonstrates an incapacity to perceive countervailing interests; her interrupting my class is not "rude," but my taking exception to her doing so is "rude."

All of this would be moot if parents and administrators everywhere understood this incapacity, attempted to teach kids how to behave properly and respect legitimate authority, and allowed teachers to do the same. Instead, kids are taught to indulge their "feelings," express their "opinions" and assert their "rights;" that whatever they do or say is perfectly fine and will be acceptable. As far as I know, adolescents have not changed much in recent decades. They have always been selfish, narcissistic and dishonest, but the difference is that once upon a time their parents knew better, and attempted to teach them not to be selfish, narcissistic and dishonest. My parents always gave my teachers the benefit of the doubt, even when I honestly believed that the teacher was being unfair or unreasonable. Not anymore. Parents give kids the benefit of the doubt, despite their incapacity. Selfishness and dishonesty, the two behaviors which my parents could absolutely not tolerate, are now encouraged.

Children and teenagers will always act in their own immediate interests, because they only know how to act in their own immediate interests. Moreover, they typically do not remember things as they actually happened; they remember and retell them in such a way as to cast themselves as blameless, innocent victims of arbitrary persecution. I've been working with young people since 1989, teaching in public schools since 1997, and have yet to hear one admit to wrongdoing unless and until he has no other choice, until he can no longer lie about it and be believed. Even then, he may finally admit to the behavior, but will characterize it as proper and justified based on some wholly irrelevant circumstance, such as another person's behavior, extraneous hardship, perceptions of past persecution, etc. And I've never heard a sincere apology or genuine remorse, never had a student feel badly about upsetting me or making me angry, or acknowledge that the behavior which did so was wrong or inappropriate. To a teenager, the wrong lies not with herself, but with the adults who witnessed or discovered the behavior, reacted to it, and punished her for it.

Nonetheless, their parents will likely believe and accept everything the children tell them, uncritically and at face value. And administrators, of course, give the parents the benefit of the doubt. (Remember the principal who let the students get away with plagiarism because I "must have made the work too hard"?) Ask any high school principal what parents have told him that their children told them a teacher did or said; you'll find most of it is not even believable, let alone true. Yet no one gives the teacher the benefit of the doubt. As if it is not tough enough being a teacher; in many situations involving teachers, students, parents and administrators, the teacher is the one whose interests matter the least, the only person whom no one believes, respects, or trusts.

In many respects, I wish I had not become so jaded about kids. I would never have become a teacher if I felt this way about them in 1997, and in spite of all this I'm sure I will miss the profession, and many of the young people I've met, when I ultimately leave it. Obviously not all of the students I have taught are like the ones I've described here, but as much as I wish they were the exception rather than the rule, I cannot in all honesty and conscience say that that is so. I have seen too much dishonesty, too much cheating, plagiarism, theft and outright, bald-faced, shameless lying, too much selfishness, narcissism, petulance, peevishness, paranoia, recklessness and self-indulgence, too many foolish, irrational, inefficient, counter-intuitive and just plain dumb choices, too much appalling, anti-social, nihilistic, uncivilized behavior, and far too little conscience, empathy, humility, impulse control, social graces, common sense, or even basic decency. If all this is the description of a typical American youth, then we have all failed.

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