The Blameless. Part 1: The YoungOctober 19, 2008
Here I will address the claim that children are not responsible for their actions because they are too young to understand how to behave.
I’m sure that plenty of behaviour in primary schools is down to the extent to which very young children are not always able to do things that adults take for granted or are ignorant of the significance of their actions. I’m also sure that children cannot be held responsible for breaking complex rules that they had no reason to know about or think existed. What is more incredible is the extent to which it is claimed that secondary school students, who have been in formal education for the better part of a decade, are ignorant of the basics of how to conduct one’s self. Nobody gets to the age of eleven without knowing that you are expected to obey your teachers; that it is wrong to hurt people, and that there are words you shouldn’t use in polite company. It’s not as if the students who continually misbehave aren’t also continually told to stop. “He doesn’t know any better” is an obvious falsehood. Only those behaviours which a child will never have seen or tried before should ever be considered in this light. This is not to say that children are always to be considered to be as responsible as adults for their actions, but there is no reason to consider the action of being told to “fuck off” by a fifteen year-old as involuntary, like the crying of a baby, or simply a result of a lack of awareness of the fact that it wasn’t polite.
The sort of behaviour that most concerns teachers (disobedience, bullying, verbal abuse, violence) is, of course, the sort of behaviour that children learn is wrong at a very young age. This does not stop appeals to theories of moral development such as those of Piaget (1932) and Kohlberg (1958) who both claimed that children developed their moral reasoning in stages. Many criticisms have been made of their ideas, but whether there is truth in their theories or not, no amount of research into the moral reasoning of children tells us about the moral acts of children. It does not take a sophisticated standard of ethical thought to do what you are told while you are at school or to refrain from telling your teacher to “fuck off”. Any teacher can tell you that children’s behaviour does not tend to continually progress in a positive way as they grow. Where behaviour improves over time it is more likely to be related to social factors (like going into the sixth form, a change in peer group, or an increase in responsibilities) than some kind of natural development. If there are developmental milestones in behaviour they would actually be points, such as adolescence, where behaviour is prone to getting worse.
Of course, even if we accept that children do follow a natural process of behaving better as they mature (or more plausibly they are socialised into at least some good habits over time) then it would still make no sense to see them as beyond blame. Even if the young were more inclined to do wrong than the old, then that would still not absolve them of responsibility. Being more strongly tempted to do something than another person does not mean you are no longer obliged to resist that temptation. “But I wanted to …” is no excuse at any age. Society can show mercy to wayward children, punish them less strictly than it would adults. It cannot, however, justify declaring them to be either free from sin or without free will. Children are not to be worshipped as saints or dehumanised into animals. They are people, and that, rather than any inherent deficiency in the young, is why they do bad things.
Kohlberg, Lawrence, The Development of Modes of Thinking and Choices in Years 10 to 16. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Chicago 1958
Piaget, J., The Moral Judgment of the Child, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co, 1932