A child is not an adult 1

A child is a child no matter what they do, how they talk, their size, or their walk.  Being a child is a matter of age and stage.  Life circumstances may force a child to grow up quicker but one remains a child – with adult responsibilities perhaps – but still a child.

A teenager is still a child.  Even a teen who becomes a parent is still a teen.    Even a teenager who murders is still a teen, not yet an adult, and should be tried as such.  It doesn’t mean that they are not guilty of committing a crime.  It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t serve appropriate time but it does mean that their mental capacity to understand what they are doing should be considered.  A teen’s brain is still developing. Their ability to think abstractly and understand consequences for actions is still being honed.

There is hope for reeducation and redemption with teen-children.  Even if they commit crimes so heinous that they cannot be redeemed or released, the fact is that they were children when they committed the crime and nothing changes that fact.

A child can’t think like a grown-up even when they’re doing grown-up things.  In fact some of the children who do grown-up  things were in fact failed by the grownups in their lives who should have been providing them guidance and care (parents, guardians, educators, health care providers, religious leaders, etc.)

When I remember myself as a teen, I think of all the protective people and factors I had around me that kept me from being able to act on the swirling emotions I had: overwhelming love, intense envy, frequent confusion and catastrophic disappointment as the veils of childhood were lifted from my eyes and I began to see things that had been happening around me more clearly. 

I remember when the parents and other adults that I loved and respected began to get on my nerves and I began searching for other people to be my role models.  I remember catching the attention of boys and men (some appropriate, some not) and being thrilled and scared by it at the same time.  I remember the whisperings and winks. I remember feeling embarrassed and angry that I couldn’t afford to buy clothes in the department stores and wanting my own money.  I remember getting tired of being a “good” girl and wanting to be a bad-ass.  Even though I survived those years mostly intact, there were definite breaches of the security of my family and my values.  Luckily I have lived to tell the tale with few battle scars of consequence. 

What I remember most, however, is that I was not an adult (supposedly in control of my emotions).  I was a teen on the bridge from childhood to adulthood.  I don’t think I became fully an adult until I was around 22.  (I’m not always sure I’m an adult now.)

Having been taught right from wrong by my family and numerous visits to church where I heard sermon after sermon telling me what was right and what was a sin, I still breached those lessons.  Think of the many children today who are not taught right from wrong in their fractured families and who are not part of churches where such lessons are taught.  Most schools do not offer instruction in character education.

I have recently read several articles about child and teen offenders being sentenced as adults and felt I had to speak out about it because it makes no sense to me.

In an article, Death in Prison Sentences for Children, on the Equal Justice Initiative website, I learned that:

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Roper v. Simmons that death by execution is unconstitutional for juveniles. Before the ruling, 365 children had been legally executed in the United States, including 22 since 1985.

On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court issued an historic ruling in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger convicted of homicide are unconstitutional. The ruling will affect hundreds of individuals whose sentencers did not take their age or other mitigating factors into account. The Court did not ban all juvenile life-without-parole sentences, but wrote that requiring sentencers to consider “children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change” should make such sentences “uncommon.”

Tried as Adults: Children who Murder by Dahloan Hambree, quotes Dr. Michel Deitch, Adjunct Professor of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin who:

Recently tackled the issue of children tried and serving time as adults in a study called “From Time Out to Hard Time.” She attests that research on child brain development shows that a child’s brain still develops until the age of 18. Areas still growing include parts of the brain responsible for impulsive behavior, making quick decisions and dealing with right and wrong choices. To further complicate the issue, not all children develop at the same rate.”

The PBS program Frontline puts faces to these issues in the documentary, Juvenile Justice: Should teens who commit serious crimes be tried and sentenced as children or adults?

In it we meet Manny, 17, charged with the attempted murder of a pregnant woman and her family; José, a 15-year-old gang member sentenced to Juvenile Hall for his role in the beating death of another teen; Shawn, a middle-class white teen who pleaded guilty to trying to murder his father; and Marquese, an African-American teen who has seven felonies on his record, all theft related.



About Candelaria Silva

Candelaria Silva-Collins is a marketing, community outreach and programming consultant; writer; and trainer/facilitator who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. She has designed and facilitated workshops on a wide variety of topics including communication, facilitation, job search skills, team building, and parenting issues. She currently coordinates the Community Membership Program of the Huntington Theatre Company. Her work as Director of ACT Roxbury was profiled in several publications, including The Creative Communities Builders Handbook. Candelaria’s children’s stories, short stories, essays and reviews have been published in local and national publications and she is an active blogger. Her publications include the booklets, Handling Rejection; Pushing through Shyness: Networking Tips when You’re Shy, Slow to Warm Up or Just don’t Feel you Belong; and Real Questions about Sex & Relationships for Teens: A Discussion Guide for Parents. She has served on the boards of Goddard College, Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston Foundation for Architecture, and Discover Roxbury. She is currently Chair, Designators of the Henderson Foundation.

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One thought on “A child is not an adult

  • Carolyn

    This powerful piece has stopped me in my tracks this morning. It puts me in mind of a play I recently saw, “Good People,” where a character talks about what happens to a teen that doesn’t have a caring family support system such as you–and I–had during those tumultuous teen years. Sadly, these kids don’t even grasp the full impact of what they do even though there give off the air and wear the countenance worthy of their acts. It is a serious issue and one for which I do not have a reasonable answer. However, I do agree with the points you have so eloquently made. Thank you for sharing the reference materials; I will check them out.