Leo Morris

How about those kids today, huh?

Don’t ask members of the Indiana General Assembly. They’re still trying to figure it out. In every legislative session, issues come up that the most astute observers had not anticipated. This time around, there seem to be a lot of proposals involving young people that weren’t on anyone’s radar. Lawmakers have suggested, among other things:

• Allowing 16-year-olds to vote.

• Increasing the age at which Hoosier youngsters may marry from 15 to 18, 17 in some circumstances.

• Increasing the smoking and vaping age from 18 to 21 and increasing the penalties for selling to those younger than 21.

• Lowering from 14 to 13 the age at which children accused of certain crimes can be tried in adult court.

• Raising from 18 to 21 the age at which Hoosier youths may buy rifles (the age that they must already be to buy handguns).

• Requiring children to wear safety helmets when riding bicycles, skateboards and non-motorized scooters.

• Preventing sex crime victims under under the age of 16 from having to give pre-trial depositions.

• Allowing children with mental health issues to have five days of psychiatric consultation instead of two or three.

If some or all of these initiatives were to pass, it wouldn’t add much clarity to existing state statutes, which already hold that the youth of Indiana can sue somebody at age 14 and buy life insurance at 16, vote at 18 but not drink until 21. They can stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26, but give a former president the credit (or blame) for that.

With an exception or two, the proposals reflect Indiana lawmakers’ struggles with the vague phenomenon known as “the teen years,” that period of transition when young people are no longer quite children and not yet quite adults. Where along that continuum do they become less of one and more of the other, and how should the law respond?

It’s pretty much a modern problem, since the very concept of “teenager” didn’t come along until several years into the 20th century.

Before that, there were boys and girls, who were at home on the family farm or working in the family business, and grownups, who left home and started their own families. There might have been a few days or a week or two in between, when Junior sat down with Dad to discuss the way of the world and Mom told Little Missy she was ready for marriage, but there was little transition period, certainly not one lasting for seven years.

Then, several things happened. The push for universal education brought us high schools, which took kids out of the home environment for four years and allowed them to create their own culture. Increasing affluence gave them money to spend. And the automobile gave them mobility and independence.

Suddenly there sprang up a whole new category of human being not seen before, and the world hasn’t been the same.

As a society, we are torn between infantilizing these in-betweeners, letting them extend their childhoods forever, and putting them in charge, setting the trends adults slavishly follow and giving us lectures on everything from gun control to climate change. The Indiana Legislature seems to awhile wallow in the confusion.

Logic tells us that no two teens are alike. Some are mature enough at at 13 to take on the most complex adult issue. And some will never grow up no matter how old they are.

But common sense says that we can’t stop and take every individual situation into account. The law must make an arbitrary distinction.

The age of 18 seems like a good one. It’s considered the age of majority in most states, and it’s the age when a young person can join the military without parental consent. There’s a certain ring of truth to the argument that “if they’re old enough to die for their country, they’re old enough to (fill in the blank).”

Take that as a friendly suggestion, General Assembly. Make 18 the dividing line, the age at which Hoosier youth enter adulthood with all its privileges and obligations.

But make them wear safety helmets on skateboards. Can’t be too careful.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.

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