When Walt Disney was 16, he forged his parents' signatures and lied about his age so he could join the Red Cross. That's how he found himself in Europe, just after World War I ended, driving ambulances.
He loved it. He said it "added up to a lifetime of experience in one package." He later put it this way: "I know being on my own at an early age has made me more self-reliant and less of a the-world-owes-me-a-living type than I otherwise would have been."
I have to thank the book "Teen 2.0," by Robert Epstein, for that story and for putting the whole idea that teens are lazy, incompetent and irresponsible on trial. Is it that "kids today" are really so immature? Or is that we treat them as if they are and they respond the way most of us do when dissed or diminished — by disappointing?
Over the past generation or two, we have come to think of young people as less and less competent. I usually notice this with younger kids — how we drive them to school, as if it's always too cold or too far. How we insert ourselves into their squabbles, as if they couldn't sort things out by themselves. How we organize their lives for them — I've done this myself — as if leaving them to their own devices would mean wasted time, a teachable moment that we failed to fill.
But teens, man! Lately, we act as if there's no difference between 13 and 3. In my town, New York City, there is no specific minimum age for latchkey kids, thank goodness. But Illinois law states that no one should be home alone until age 14 — an age when many kids in my generation had already been baby-sitting for two or three (or four!) years. Now the 14-year-olds are the babies themselves.
Or how about crossing guards? My crossing guard when I was a tyke was a 10-year-old. Now the 10-year-olds are the tykes, and the guards are all adults.
Deliver newspapers? The folks who bring ours here in Jackson Heights do it by car. Most newspapers require their delivery people to have a license and liability insurance. If you're just a kid with a bike? Too bad.
And as for the laws about sex, we act as if anyone with any stirrings of anything before 18 is either a perp or a victim. Sometimes they're both. A case in 2006 involved a 13-year-old Utah girl who had consensual sex with her 12-year-old boyfriend. I don't know of anyone who loves the idea of kids that young sleeping together, but here's something worse: She was found guilty of having sex with someone under 14.
And so was he!
That makes them both sex offenders (and both victims). As I learned from Nicole Pittman, an expert on the sex offender laws I heard speak at an NYU School of Law symposium, of the 800,000 or so people on the sex offender registry nationwide, 200,000 are younger than 18. That's because teens have sex with other teens — a fact that shouldn't be news — and when the sex is consensual, it shouldn't be considered rape.
Shackling a teen with the label of "sex offender" often means they are not allowed to go to school (because there are other kids there) or even live at home, if there are younger siblings in the house. Sometimes they can't live near a park, a church, a day care center — even though it's not that they ever raped a toddler; it's that they slept with someone about their own age, as teens always have.
It's only now that we're treating teens like toddlers themselves that we are stunting them as humans and hunting them down for having sex. Really, it's time for someone to grow up.