Sunday, February 11, 2007

Column 93 - Responsibility

Well, last week the wider world intruded on us in an unpleasant way. Four Incline High Juniors are accused of sabotaging the school buses in a way that could have resulted in damage and even potentially loss of life. As usual, school officials and people who know the accused say they are nice kids, never would have expected it, etc., and I have no doubt that is true.

Now this is no Columbine, but it still is cause for concern. I’m sure the four of them never thought far enough ahead to realize the potentially disastrous results of their actions, but while that might mitigate their guilt, it does not remove it. These are eleventh graders – if they don’t already drive, they will be eligible to drive soon, and they are a scant 18 months from leaving home, high school graduates, ready to go out on their own into the world – I don’t think it’s too much to expect that they should have given the implications of their actions more thought.

No one knows for sure why many young people today seem to be so prone to irresponsibility. I don’t think it’s all young people or even a majority, but it’s a large enough number for the problem to keep showing up – in school shootings, vandalism, graffiti, and now in cutting brake lines on school buses. As a psychologist who used to work with children, adolescents, and their families, I feel like I should understand, but have no confidence that I do. One possibility is that the consequences are just too remote for people of that age to think about.

Here’s an example: When I was about 10 or 11 years old, Nancy Brown and her brother Bruce offended me in some way that I can no longer remember, so some of my friends and I got a bright idea – we took some excelsior (shredded paper that bananas came in) and a .22 caliber bullet that we got God knows where, embedded the bullet in the paper, put it under Nancy’s window, lit the paper and ran away. Within minutes two things happened: a neighbor put out the fire and a police car, called by another neighbor, pulled up in front of my friends and me and took us into custody. Not more than 15 minutes after setting our primitive IED, I was in front of my parents with a policeman behind me, confessing what I had done and on the receiving end of some serious consequences.

It seems to me that this would be unlikely to happen nowadays. More likely the neighbors, if they were looking at all, would have felt it best to mind their own business, the police, if they were called, would have been careful not to violate any rights I might be thought to have, and my parents would have tried to understand or defended me against the police rather than punishing me. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but it seems to me that we have lost sight of the facts that (a) children are essentially amoral beings who have to be taught right from wrong and (b) the systems – police, teachers, parents – that are there to teach them and to make sure that bad choices have undesirable consequences have had their hands tied by fear of seeming abusive, violating “rights” that may or may not be useful and a culture of psychologism that makes responsibility a bad word.

I feel for the parents of these four children, but I hope that, if they are guilty, their punishment is significant enough to have them learn something useful. The worst thing they could learn would be that they can do something wrong and then they or their parents or a lawyer can game the system so that they escape the consequences of their choices and their actions.

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