Society is deeply schizophrenic about children.
On the one hand, there is the Sandusky response. Jerry Sandusky is the former Penn State football coach accused of serial child molestation. Even before a trial, states are scrambling to pass new laws to require universities and athletic associations to report any suspicion of child abuse. In this response, children are defenseless and desperately need their innocence protected by diligent adults.
On the other hand, there is the public-school response. A mere sampling of news stories from last week:
- A 9-year-old is suspended for sexual harassment because he told another student that a teacher is “cute.”
- A high school student is handcuffed for wearing a hoodie that did not match school colors.
- a 13-year-old student is arrested for allegedly burping during class.
- a 7-year-old is investigated for sexual harassment for hitting a boy in the groin who was allegedly choking him.
In this response, children are dangerous brutes and adults should treat them as emerging criminals.
Both approaches harm children.
Children as Emerging Criminals
Childhood is a disorderly period, rife with energy and curiosity. Teenagers correctly question the rules of their lives and stretch themselves in a stumble toward adulthood.
These are periods of natural human evolution, but they are cast as criminal or pathologized as “unhealthy.” When viewed as criminal, harmless behavior such as developing a crush on a “cute” teacher is punished as harassment. Public schools confront healthy children and teenagers with “zero tolerance” policies that were designed to rein in drug dealers but are now being applied to dress codes and burping. And so a dress-code violation that used to merit detention now results instead in handcuffs.
Those who criminalize children offer a tremendously negative view of what it is to be young. They depict children as savages and their interrelationships as so hazardous as to need adult correction at every turn; this only encourages children to view each other with suspicion. But children are not savages; they are human beings with rights. How they mature is intimately connected to the inspiration and compassion received from the adults on whom they depend.
No one wants violent bullying to be ignored, but the solution should not be more extreme than the problem. And in the absence of violence, there are far worse things than allowing children to work matters out without applying a guidebook of regulations that rival the military.
Children as Vulnerable Victims
Protecting children by criminalizing adults is no less harmful. Anyone who truly abuses a child deserves contempt and criminal charges. But the fact that child abuse exists must not be used as an a prior indictment of adults, especially of men, as potential child molestors. And yet this indictment has been embedded into society by practices such as airlines’ refusal to seat a child by a nonrelative male or by laws that can be interpreted to require a show of affection to be reported as suspected abuse.
This approach damages children who are taught to view any and all strangers with fear; in turn, adults are taught to avoid contact with children, even if they seem to be in distress. This endangers children. For every predator on the street, there are thousands of decent people who would normally come to the aid of a child in danger or distress. Laws that punish “unsolicited or casual contact” are unlikely to deter child rapists, but they will dissuade good samaritans.
My epiphany came several years ago with one news story. In 2002 a toddler wandered from her nursery school in the early morning and later turned up dead. A bricklayer named Clive Peachey drove past her on the street in his truck. At the inquest he stated, “I kept thinking I should go back. The reason I didn’t was because I thought people might think I was trying to abduct her.” Instead, he assured himself that the parents must be “driving around” and would find her. A few minutes later the little girl fell into an algae-covered pond and died. The man was devastated by the consequences of his inaction but had he stopped, his actions might well have been misinterpreted and resulted in an ordeal that could wreck his livelihood and the welfare of his own children.
Laws that mandate the reporting of any suspicious contact with children will result in a dramatic increase in false or malicious accounts that harm innocent people. They will also make adults withdraw from all contact with children.
Overwhelmingly, the retreating adults will be good human beings who would otherwise enrich children’s lives.
Ironically, the decency of ordinary people is what child-abuse legislators rely on. They depend on the outrage average people feel toward the willful harming of a child. And yet the laws passed in the wake of this outrage will serve to isolate children from decent people.