Sunday, May 22, 2011

Protecting the myth of childhood


When the John Jay report came out Tuesday, I sat back for a day or so, assessing the reactions. However, since the blogosphere shows all the ADHD tendencies of the MSM — just think of the dog in Up (“Squirrel!”) — by the time I was ready to write anything, the new focus was Harold Camping and his Apocalypse Not.

However, Mark Shea wrote a bit on Friday in his personal blog that bears some further comment. A reader had sent him a link to George Weigel’s National Review post, “Priests, Abuse and the Meltdown of a Culture”, with the subjoined comment:

Forgive me, though, for thinking that the author’s objecting to the term “pedophilia” as “malicious” where “ephebophilia” is the correct term seems a laugher. As a daddy to two boys that are 11 and 13, they still seem like children to me if technically they are no longer “pre-pubescent”. Get a grip.

Shea agrees, and I can’t say I blame him:

The whole “it wasn’t pedophilia, but ephebophilia” thing seems like the sort of pettifogging distinction without a difference that butt-saving bureaucrats like to make. Let me put it this way: if some priest laid a hand on my 15 year [old] kid, I wouldn’t stand there parsing distinctions about pedophile vs. ephebophile. I’d call the cops. I’d also engage in intense interior debate about the morality of beating the living daylights out of the priest who harmed my kid.


This is a tough issue for me to tackle. I’m not only an uncle but a granduncle, and I’m more than willing to exercise the necessary — and perhaps a little unnecessary — force to protect my own. But I’m not a father; in many eyes, I’m missing the credentials needed to be taken seriously on matters of parenthood.

But both Shea and his reader bring up a problem that bedevils us: adolescence. The saying goes, “There are two types of people: People who divide people into two types, and those who don’t.” Our minds easily gravitate to either/or propositions — male/female, straight/gay, true/false, right/wrong. So it is with adolescents; we can’t seem to make up our social mind whether they’re adults or children precisely because we’re trying to impose an either/or bifurcation on a period of transition.

Consider some of the inconsistencies this leads us to:

  • At eighteen, a young man isn’t old enough to buy a .22 rifle and cartridges at your local Wal-Mart, but he’s old enough to carry an M16A2 rifle or Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) into a “hot zone” in Pakistan.
  • At fifteen in some states, a young woman isn’t old enough to have her tonsils out without parental approval, yet she’s old enough to have her uterus scraped out with a sharp object without so much as a phone call to her parents to let them know it’s being done.
  • In at least one state a fourteen-year-old girl is old enough to marry but not old enough to appear in a porn flick … or even semi-naked on a cell phone.
  • In a couple of states, a twelve-year-old boy will stand trial as a juvenile for shoplifting or car theft but as an adult for murder.

Understand, I’m not “blaming” either teenagers or their parents for their own victimization; that’s as fatuous as the “blame the sexual revolution and Woodstock” whitewash attributed to the bishops by Jeff Anderson’s sock puppet, Laurie Goodstein.[1] Nor am I suggesting we make our laws consistent by giving thirteen-year-olds guns, driver’s licenses and beer; my mind shudders at the chaos that would erupt.

Ephebophiles look at past and present examples of cultures where adolescents are/were not only sexually active but married, and point to them as proof of their desires’ rightfulness and naturalness. (Think of Shakespeare’s Juliet, who was not only married to Romeo but promised to County Paris even though she “hath not seen the summer of fourteen years”.)

However, in such cultures childhood as we understand it ends/ended about the age of five or six, as children started to take on such adult tasks as they were physically able to carry out. From that point on, it was understood that they were being trained for adulthood, and their behavior from that point was judged by adult standards. Our modern tendency to idealize children and childhood stems from the nineteenth century, decades prior to child-labor laws; even into the middle of the twentieth century, it was often expected that if necessary a teenager would quit school to help support the family.

Adolescents are vulnerable to predators’ sexual pressure, I believe, because they lack the training in adulthood of just a few generations ago. They’re without the boundaries and discipline of adult thinking at the precise time their changing bodies are making adult demands on them.

Many of the laws we make don’t protect children so much as they protect the myth of childhood innocence. As I’ve argued before, children know the basics of right and wrong by five or six, and are perfectly capable of intentional rottenness.

Because we romanticize childhood, we’re inclined to cut children breaks, discount their ill behavior and shield them from the full weight of consequences. When the time comes, then, to take a stand against the predator’s seduction, the young adult’s ability to resist wrong is underdeveloped and easily overcome. Moreover, much of our culture is dedicated to telling them that they shouldn’t resist, that whatever sexual choices they make are good by default.

I submit the pedophile/ephebophile distinction is valid. Adolescents aren’t children any longer, even if they haven’t fully grown into their adulthood. If they’re not ready for adult responsibilities, it’s because we no longer prepare them adequately for adult realities.

It’s time to stop protecting the myth of childhood, because the myth is a danger to our young.


[1] Goodstein’s attempt to make the John Jay report an exercise in self-justification misses the point, which was to understand how the crisis happened, not to evade responsibility for it. The fact still remains that almost all of the bishops who participated in cover-ups are no longer in charge of dioceses; they’re either retired or, as in Cdl. Bernard Law’s case, exiled to minor positions.