Saturday, November 11, 2017

Too Young To Know

#MeAt14 Reminds Internet 14-Year-Olds Are Innocent, Immature, Unable To Consent. Sounds legit. But it's interesting in that when you read through the NPR article, you're presented with pictures of young white women; photos that are clearly selected to show them as childish. Well, it's interesting to me, anyway. Because it's a reminder of the children that I used to work with, in a past life. For them, being "innocent and immature" wasn't a fact of biology, it was a luxury that they didn't have. They needed to have a clear-eyed and practical understanding of how the adult world worked, because they couldn't rely on their parents to shield them well enough that they could manage to be unfamiliar with it.

And it left many of them in a difficult position, because they were legally unable to consent to anything. And this has nothing to do with sex. many of the children in the residential treatment center I worked in chafed under the rules there, but they had no legal right to chose anything else for themselves; the state had made the choice for them, and that's all she wrote. And this isn't to say that they should necessarily have been allowed free rein to determine what their living situations were going to be. It wasn't difficult to see how the choices that many of the kids would have made (or even had access to) would have ended badly. But that didn't erase from many of them the understanding that they'd been able to manage more or less for themselves for some time before state social workers had shown up and decreed that they were going to live in a big brick building miles away from their friends, communities and whatever family they still had.

And so, even though the youth in our center generally ranged from 5 to 14, to survive in the world, one had to understand that for many of them, innocence and immaturity were not their native state, but one that we were attempting to restore them to, despite the fact that those particular children were much more streetwise than most of us staffers and some even had better housekeeping skills. (In all honesty, some of the children I worked with were better cooks then than I am now, some two decades later.) This isn't to say that I would have condoned them being in relationships with adults twice their age or other. We didn't condone them being sexual at all. But many of them had needed to learn to navigate sexuality before they'd come to treatment, and they'd developed differing levels of skill at it. And again, our goal was, as much as we could, dehabituate them from using those skills.

In modern parlance, the fact that some teenagers can afford to be complete naïfs in a world where that carries such serious consequences for others is considered a privilege. When I was growing up, it simply made one lucky to one degree or another. I hadn't realized how fortunate I had been in my own childhood until I was faced with stories of how other childhoods had gone horribly and irreparably wrong. I don't know that those stories have a place in the narrative being woven by "#MeAt14." I suspect they don't, if for no other reason that they'd be seized upon by people looking to justify relationships we commonly consider to be some combination of criminal and perverse.

But I do think that it's important, at some point, to make sure that we remember that the extension of childhood through adolescence is not ordained. We worked to make it that way, and there are people who were missed in that work.

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