The Criminalization of Youth

By A. B. Thomas

A statement  aimed at the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper and his minority government, and first written into a blog, didn’t clarify whether the “criminalization of the youth”  was a reference to  the toughening up of the Young Offenders Act, the actions of actually delivering something of a child care plan (much smaller in scale than the previous Liberal government promised, but never acted on, preferring to use it as a carrot for election lies…I mean campaign promises), or something the reader may have  overlooked entirely. Regardless, the phrase “the criminalization of youth” strikes a chord. While the accusation was aimed in a Canadian parameter,  it would only be  prudent to say that with the current slides in the way American judicial courts are going in their young offender cases that get media attention up here, it would be a similar accusation towards the American government as well.

The first thought that comes to mind when pondering ‘the criminalization of youth’ in regards to the Canadian Parliament as being responsible is that it’s too easy of an answer. I’ve always held the belief that any agency, private or public, in proportion to the size of its bureaucracy, becomes less and less effective as a whole. Governments in particular have shown that they are not the leaders in social policy but tend to legislate with what their pollsters state the population would support. Being proactive is not in character with the legislative wheels that are looking for oil to fix there squeak; too dangerous of a tactic for any governing party in a democratic nation to use. If it is not the actions of the government criminalizing our youth, then who is responsible for the government reacting the way it is to the actions of the nation’s youth?

The answer could only mean that society as a whole is responsible for the criminalization of youth. On the surface one would look at our society and say, “that’s not right – we cherish, protect and value our children”. Cherish children, yes. Protect children, yes. Value children, yes. Value childhood, no. Childhood is the time when children become initiated into the rudimentary structure of youthdom and begin to insinuate what their roles in adult society are. However today adulthood, being a teenager and even a child are skewed and blurred into a mishmash where the definitive lines are no longer recognizable. It’s not any particular sector of the population or aspect of society that has left its watermark on this olio but it’s our Western culture that has done so. The result is that it creates the medium of the ‘idle hands’ complex which turns a young person’s mind turn to a negative acts of self gratification.

This conclusion  sounds judgmental against our modern society; especially considering this is a society that goes out of its way to show how it is concerned with not only the children of its sphere of influence but reaches out to the children in countries that aren’t anywhere close to where we are.  However, it’s  this very concern that avertedly created the conditions for the assumption of the youth that they have permission to do things that they ought not to do.

Historically there has always been steps towards adulthood that children climb (I’m not talking about developmental milestones; I don’t ascribe to the notion that children generally develop the same skills at around the same time, I think it’s a far more random and personal proceedure) and they knew that they had achieved a higher level (if that’s the proper terminology) in their social development. This had a lot to do with the nature of society for the most part; there were always anomalies to this as with any thesis because the communities’ survival depended largely on the interdependence of the population to work with each other in specified fields.

The first major delineation in this was the industrial revolution. The hierarchy of community function changed fundamentally at this point because the purchasing power shifted from a community to community basis to a plant to community to community basis. There have always been castes in every society, some more pronounced than others, but in Western cultures they were more subtle but the creation factories that needed to be stationary and workers really divided the community and made them more specialized rather than being well rounded in order to make the community function. The eventual ability to mass market food and preserve foods further made the reliance on the rural part of the community less important. On the farms there was always something to be done, even when harvest was in. However once the cities became larger, there was more free time for not only workers but for their families (which it doesn’t seem like it for most people, but in the scope of what needed to be done and what should be done shifted significantly to the should be side). As a negative to this the onus of some companies using child labor can be said to have been highlighted as part of the dark sides of the industrial revolution. While there were a percentage of children acting out, there was no particular cry out for legislative controls on them.

The second major delineation began with the nineteen seventies. There became a more conscientious effort to ‘understand’ childhood and allow children to express their ‘true’ feelings though this movement really didn’t become the creature it is today until around the late nineteen eighties. Almost every child in our culture has some sort of label attached to either him or her that deviates them from the ‘norm’ today. It’s the nature of the beast, a combination of an educational system that has become out dated for the times; its not the fault of the teachers, but the administrators of the systems that prefer to keep the cattle car structure rather than what is necessary now. With all the different labeling and coding that is in effect, along with my third and fourth point, it has given children an ‘out’, which rather than being weaned off of as they mature they continue to have as the forefront motivator for their behaviour. It’s the idea that “I deserve this” not “I worked hard to earn this”. The ideology that children have to be hand fed and slotted has overtaken the need to have a reason to mature because they have been given professional rationality on why they developmentally are not able to.

While I was taking the Early Childhood courses I started to see in the other students something that disturbed me, especially the young ones: Because of these courses we know better than the parents of the kids we will/are serving. Then I noticed it in other places, even the bar, where Rene hired a guy who had taken a mixology course over someone who when put to the test made the drinks that were asked flawlessly while the guy with the piece of paper screwed up twice. Why? Because, as Rene said, “Hey he’s got the paper that says he knows what he’s doing”. But he didn’t know better, all he had was a piece of paper that said that some institution said he was qualified – it didn’t mean he was capable. I have several pieces of paper but I know that I’m far from capable in several areas, but if I didn’t know my own weaknesses I could be out in the world screwing up the next generation as bad as the current batch of people.

We live in a society that  bases merit on ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ and shuns those who live by the ‘why the fuck not’. We are constantly looking over our shoulders at others and doing things similarly, quite unconsciously because we have been conditioned to behave so even though our minds may be doing a complete 180. Through the perpetuation of a corrupt educational system we as a society have this cattle car mentality that school equals more worth. Education, it seems, trains people to suspend their own common sense and replaces it with the elitist persona of being ‘educated’ and makes people mistakenly assume that the theories they taught by rote are fact and that makes them know more than a person who hasn’t taken the courses.

Do I blame the universities, colleges, high schools, middle schools, elementary and most play schools? Hell no, I wish I could but they are just following what they were taught. Can I blame Churches? No, but I do believe that the formation of a formal religious tenet did cause this. I blame the first Ancient asshole that one night got together with a couple of his buddies and said, “So here’s the deal – I know everything and I’m going to tell you it, but you can’t tell anyone else. We will tell the others enough that they don’t dare question anything I…we say.”

The third major delineation began similarly in the seventies as the sixties counter culture started to be come the norm rather than the off to the side and became parents and leaders in society. I believe that there is a lot of guilt and resentment mixed into the way we look at children now as compared to even forty years ago. The quality of life that parents expect for their children has risen far beyond what could possibly be considered reasonable, and not to help matters the price for the basic needs has risen to where the majority of families cannot make it on one salary. There is also a rise in single parent family units because the entitlement that the seventies have procured for the 20-40 yr old generation (which not to say that I advocate the ‘stay together no matter how much you want to take that knife and put it in your partner’s lying, cheating back and twist’) to be more hasty in their marital unions and dis-unionizations which has created a wash and wear idealism on what partnerships are supposed to mean. Parents want their children to have everything they want, not just what they need. Assuredly it is a good intention but by saying, “I’m going to just give my child what they want because my parents didn’t so I am the better parent” ideology is further corrupting the creation of the work ethic of the children who become youths who don’t respect the properties or others the way that they should. Another contributing factor for parents is that they are constantly bombarded by the experts that tell them what is right, what isn’t – without mentioning that give or take a couple of years, they will be wrong and someone else will come in and start to tell them why they are bad parents. It has to also be stated that the legislative bodies getting into the act is also putting pressure on the dynamics of families and more to the point the discipline aspect of it. For instance, in Canada we have laws that prohibit spanking of a child, the definition of which is left up to the person who charging the ‘offending’ parents and the mood of the judge at the particular time of the court date. I’m not saying that I approve of spanking but I do see that sometimes it could be used as a disciplinary tool – specifically when it has to do with the child in danger of hurting themselves or others. The presumption that children are mature enough to be talked to about their behaviour is an utter denial of the time it takes for the synaptic nerves to be built to process the logic in the rationality. Animals are quick to give a nip to their young when they step out of line and it is quite effective in keeping those young alive and on the right path for their development. I have yet to see a paper that sitting a two year old down and giving them a good talking to on why they shouldn’t shove a fork in an electrical outlet is outstandingly more effective than the immediate pat on the butt and a firm “no” at the time the event is occurring.

The fourth major delineation began in the nineteen nineties and the explosion of the internet and the development of satellite and optic cable systems for the general masses. Years ago the only major influence on a child’s ‘want factor’ was either through a book or the occasional movie. Today is a different race altogether. Instantaneously children and teens can see what other people live like, what they have, what they don’t’ have and realize that they don’t have it and can’t fathom why they don’t have it. They get deluged with images of what makes a person cool, what makes a person desirable and what makes a person grown up. Our lack of changing our society on a much slower pace, with second thoughts and third thoughts have created an atmosphere where life is more leisurely and without community purpose. We focus more on the personal goals that look not at how they benefit our society but how they benefit us in society.

These four delineations from our ancestral community schemata are what I would deem as root factors in the criminalization of youth. We make up society, we decide what the rules are, and we decide what is acceptable and what is not. Nothing on this planet created our society; we did it as a collective body. Yet no one can pin point where the core of society is, nor is anyone ready to admit they have a say in the collective body. People blame politicians for bad laws; politicians blame their constituents for wanting bad laws – society is a headless unthinking beast with everyone unwilling to put their hand up and say, “Sorry, its my pet and I really should have kept it on a leash…should have got the damn thing neutered.” Here’s my theory in a nut shell: We have over saturated ourselves with things to make our lives easier to the point where some people feel the need to play catch up while others don’t know what to do with themselves because we’ve lost the need to work together as one in order to survive. Society has gone from “will I survive to see tomorrow” to “how will I survive tomorrow”. It’s as if society has deemed how much education a person has over the strength of character as a determining factor for their place in our worthiness scale. We’ve even put off the certainty of death with artificial life support systems, organ transplant operations and medicines that can cure what once would have been fatal, all in the name of humanity. Is the problem that society has gained an arrogance that for a lot of people puts their needs ahead of their community’s needs? What we have now as a society, is one that expects  our governments  to react to the changes that we were not prepared for and are too timid to own as our responsibility.  I’m not going to make suggestions on how to change this because I don’t think, quite frankly, that as a society we are totally ready to step back the paces that we bounded over and take the baby steps of progress that we should have taken in the first place.