Sunday, March 06, 2005

ageism

I was having a discussion with someone last week at dinner, about the unfairness of being a kid. Kids can't use certain websites until they're over 13, they can't drive until they're 16, they can't see R-rated movies without their parents until they're 18, they can't vote until they're 18, they can't drink until they're 21, they are subject to various parental notification laws, and are in fact almost totally at the mercy of their parents.

The ageism debate came up again this weekend when we were watching a West Wing episode which featured a group of kids who were lobbying for a reduced voting age. They argued that it was unfair that laws could be imposed on a group who had no voting power, and that if children were given the vote, long term issues like Social Security might be given more consideration. I totally agree, and I think I've discussed this in the past. The only possible reason to deny children suffrage is the "undue influence" argument, which ignores the fact that many adults are also easily swayed by their families, churches, colleagues, and other groups. If a kid actually takes the initiative to register to vote, why shouldn't he/she be allowed to cast a ballot?

Another age-related limit I've never understood is the drinking age. The US has the highest drinking age in the world (Most countries set it at 16 or 18.) Furthermore, I travelled extensively as a kid, and as long as I was with my parents, I was never refused service of alcohol, except in the US. I'm convinced that our ridiculously high drinking age is one of the reasons that our country's universities have such a problem with binge drinking (another one is that we treat our college students like kids, which I'll address later). If it weren't illegal for pledges to drink alcohol, would fraternities bother? Approaching the issue from another angle, it also seems ridiculous that our government thinks that someone who is mature enough to be sent to fight a war for his/her country is not mature enough to consume alcohol.

Similarly, I remember being in high school, and going with my sister to see an R-rated movie, which had no violence, very little bad language, and I think one scene where a woman's breasts were visible. Horror of horrors! Since my sister was 13, even though my mother bought the ticket for her, she wasn't allowed to see the movie unless my mother also bought a ticket and watched the movie with us. Several of our friends' parents got really good at the "buy a ticket, walk into the theatre, and leave out the back door" routine. I'm not sure if maybe the movie theatres were just trying to make an extra buck, or what, but it was a silly charade.

Moving on to a stickier subject, I also disagree with the idea of statutory rape, as it is defined in the US. Many states do not define as statutory rape, sex between a underage male and an adult female. What gives? Teenage girls are too immature to give consent, but teenage guys aren't? In California, if a 18-year-old male has sex with a 17-year-old female, it's a misdemeanor. If a 19-year-old male has sex with a 16-year-old female, it's a felony. I still vaguely remember high school, and I have a bunch of cousins who are in high school now, and I really don't think that 16-year-old girls are all that innocent. Over the holidays, I happened to see part of an IM conversation between two 14-year-old girls, and let's just say that they had extensive "relationship" vocabularies.

The driving age is another stupid one. There are plenty of adults who are horrible drivers, and there's nothing to say that kids can't be great drivers. I argue that people shouldn't be given driver's licenses until they've logged a certain number of miles. So basically, anyone who is tall enough to reach the gas pedals should be able to get a permit. Once you get a permit, you can drive with your parent or guardian, and log miles until you reach 10,000 (or 20,000, or whatever). At that point you can take a test (which should include both parallel parking and driving in reverse) and get your license. My mother used to drive a 40 mile roundtrip to take me (and eventually my sister and brother) to high school, and you can bet she wanted us to get our licenses more than we did. By the time I was fifteen and a half, I was an expert at the Marin to San Francisco commute, and my mom used to sleep in the front seat on the way there. I'm pretty sure I would have been a safer driver than a lot of the crazy people I saw out there on the road.

Finally, there is the whole issue of college students being treated as kids. When I was at MIT, a pledge died after some fraternity ritual during which he drank 16 beers. His parents subsequently sued the school. I had no sympathy for the parents. No one was physically forced to drink anything. If they thought their kid was mature enough to go off to college, then he was mature enough to make his own decisions, and if he was stupid enough to drink himself to death (with or without peer pressure), that was his problem, and their problem, for not teaching him better while he was still a kid.

The problem is that a lot of parents in American society don't want to let go. They're not satisfied with having complete control of their children until they're 18; they want to keep controlling them while they go through college, and after. Since they can't actually be around to do so, they expect schools to do the parenting for them, which is completely ridiculous. The solution is not to police college students, who should rightfully be considered adults, but for parents to realize that the more freedom that they give their children while in high school and middle school, the more their children will learn about time management, and regulating their own behavior.

It all comes down to expectations. If parents expect children not to be able to handle things, they won't. If kids expect their parents to clean up the mess every time they screw up, they will. We should just give kids a little bit more freedom, and teach them to deal with it.

Then again, I'm probably still speaking from the perspective of the kid. We'll see what I think in twenty years.

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