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Should Children who Commit Crimes be seen as Responsible for Their Actions?

Updated on August 16, 2014

Answering the question of whether children who have committed crimes should be seen as responsible for their actions depends on how the people making this decision view children and childhood as a whole. This may be determined by many factors including: their approach to studying childhood, past and current scientific research and their personal beliefs about children and childhood.

Science, social constructionism and applied approaches aim to answer whether or not, or to what degree child criminals should be held responsible for their actions and if they are held responsible, what methods should be used in dealing with them and shaping their futures.

The Scientific Approach

The scientific approach to the question aims to provide solid facts and proof that can be used to base beliefs about children and childhood upon. Experiments such as those conducted by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg have shown that children appear to develop through several set stages before they are capable of having a full moral understanding of the world, society and what is expected of them. Piaget's experiments such as his three mountains and conservation tasks revealed that children think in different ways to adults. For example: the children he used in these research tasks were unable to view the mountains from the dolls point of view until they reached a certain age. He believed this was due to the fact that they were unable to place themselves in the dolls position and see the situation from her perspective.

Findings from research such as this are important when decisions need to be made over the matter of criminal responsibility. It can help provide a guide to what age’s children can be thought of as being capable of understanding concepts such as right and wrong, how their actions can affect others and that actions have consequences and what these consequences will be.

In 1993 two ten year old boys assaulted and killed two year old James Bulger. At that time English law stated that children aged between ten and fourteen could only be held responsible for committing a crime if it could be proven that they understood what they were doing at the time (also known as doli incapax). In this case the two boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were accessed by psychologists and found to be of normal intelligence and able to understand the difference between right and wrong. Because of this the boys were held responsible for the crime they had committed and tried for the murder in an adult court. Scientific research findings were able to provide the criminal justice system with information and proven theories on which they could base their handling of the boys and their rulings.

John Locke was an influential philosopher and physician who proposed the idea that the mind was a blank slate (tabula rasa) that is moulded by the influences and experience of the person.
John Locke was an influential philosopher and physician who proposed the idea that the mind was a blank slate (tabula rasa) that is moulded by the influences and experience of the person. | Source

Social Constructionism

Social constructionism is based on the idea that children are the products of their experiences, upbringing and environment. Various discourses of childhood try to explain why children are the way they are and behave as they do.

The romantic discourse of childhood believes children are born innocent and wholesome and will only become unruly or badly behaved if they are mistreated or deprived in some way. This discourse suggests that children should be protected as much as possible from the sex, violence and other aspects of the adult world and allowed to have a carefree childhood full of fun and innocence. Followers of this view believe that if children behave badly then they need help and guidance rather than punishments because their behaviour is not their fault or choice, but are displayed as a result of poor treatment or having access to/being shown inappropriate influences.

The puritan discourse states that children are born wicked and full of sin and can only be civilized and taught morality by the adults around them. Followers of this discourse believe that children need to be controlled and disciplined because if they are left to their own devices they will become violent, uncontrollable and evil. Within this discourse adults have complete authority over children and must punish their mistakes even if this makes the child unhappy or causes short term distress or pain. Followers of the puritan discourse believe that this temporary distress or unpleasantness is needed so the child will learn to adopt good behaviours over bad or inappropriate ones and grow into well-adjusted adults.

A third discourse, known as the tabula rasa discourse believes that children have no innate qualities but are born as a blank slate that will be shaped by the type of experiences and guidance they receive during their lives. If given the right guidance children will become rational and responsible adults but if exposed to negative or inappropriate teachings they may learn unfavourable behaviours and develop negative ethical and moral attitudes. The tabula rasa discourse states that there is little point in punishing children unless they understand what they have done wrong. Unless a child is able to understand their wrong doings and why it is considered as such they will be unable to understand how to correct their behaviour in future. Parental love, guidance, interest and presence are believed to be vital to insure that a child grows up to be a well-balanced individual.

Which of the three discourses of childhood do you support/believe?

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Although all these discourses are part of the social constructionist approach to studying childhood they have differing views and beliefs about children, their abilities to understand concepts and how they should be treated. When thinking about the matter of criminal responsibility these distinctions can have a big difference on how a child is viewed and in turn how they are treated.

When Robert Thompson and Jon Venables abducted, assaulted and killed James Bulger in 1993 the general public reaction was one of shock and outrage. Many people and the media viewed the boys as being savage and evil. The judge, Mr Justice Morland stated that 'the killing of James Bulger was an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity' and an officer working on the case said 'you should not compare these boys with other boys. They were evil'. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were viewed as being different to other children their age and not only to blame for what they had done but as evil and savage beings outside of normality, deserving to be punished for knowingly hurting a younger child.

Around the same time, in Norway two six year old boys committed the murder of five year old Silje Marie Raedergard. The incident happened when the three children were playing together and the game became violent. The older boys stripped and beat Sillje before leaving her, where she froze in the snow. Despite the shock, anger and hurt the children’s parents and their community must of felt the reaction to these two boys and the crime was very different to that of James Bulgers killers. Neither of the boys names were ever published to the public and the school that all three children attended spoke out to parents and the other children about how safe they were and asked that people remain calm. Both boys received counselling and where reintegrated back into society as soon as possible. They returned to school a short time afterwards and no one protested. A local paper reported 'the culprits were just six years old; how did they know what they were doing?' and even Silje's mother sympathised with them and appealed to the local community that they should be left alone to continue their lives. She also stated that they would be punished enough by having to live with knowing what they had done to Silje and that she believed that the boys needed to be educated on how to behave and treat others so that they could fit back into society rather than be punished and locked away.

These two cases show different discourses of childhood in action. The puritan discourse can be seen in the Bulger case where people claimed his killers were evil and should not be part of society. In contrast, in Norway people believed the young boys were good and had made a mistake because at their age they could not have understood what would happen or how serious their actions could become. Therefore it was believed that they should not be punished but should receive extra guidance and support so that they would not make the same mistake again. Nobody hated them or their families which fits into the romantic discourse's belief that all children are inherently good and pure.

The romantic discourse of childhood believes that children are born good and pure and only later corrupted by bad influences and mistreatment. It also states that they should be protected from the difficulties of the adult world.
The romantic discourse of childhood believes that children are born good and pure and only later corrupted by bad influences and mistreatment. It also states that they should be protected from the difficulties of the adult world. | Source

The Applied Approach

A third approach to studying childhood is called the applied approach, which uses both scientific practices and research and social constructionism to try to find ways that are appropriate to help, punish or otherwise deal appropriately with children. This approach has two methods of dealing with child criminals, the justice and welfare models.

The justice model believes that children should be held responsible for what they have done, dealt with in court and punished. This model believes that too much time and effort is spent on investigating and trying to understand why people commit crimes rather than punishing them so fits in with puritan discourse beliefs well. The welfare model looks at the problem of children committing crimes from the romantic discourse's point of view. This model subscribes to the view that children are innately good and pure, so if they behave badly it must be because they have been mistreated in some way or have been subjected to inappropriate influences. Offenders are not always seen as being responsible for their behaviour and incidents and situations in their lives are taken into account when deciding what the best course of action to take is.

Answering the question of whether children who commit crimes should be held responsible for them is very difficult and can be further complicated by differing views and the greatly varying circumstances that can surround each case. Children vary so much in mental and social abilities even within age groups due to experiences, special needs that maybe present and the examples they have learnt from, believe in and follow. For example if a child has grown up surrounded by aggression and violence is it really fair to blame them when they act aggressively, even if they are viewed by some to be old enough to know it's wrong?

In situations like this children may not realise that behaving aggressively or hurting others is wrong because it is the norm to them and even if they do feel bad when it happens to them or that it is a bad way to behave they may not know how too or be able to adjust their behaviour if violence and aggression are being modelled to them consistently. A more appropriate approach rather than punishment would be to teach and guide them in ways that show there are more acceptable ways to behave that are better suited to living within our society.

Children and even adults may struggle to learn alternative behaviour patterns by being punished and locked away in prisons and similar institutions. In fact this may lead to further problems in the future as they may feel angry at being punished when they do not understand what they did wrong or feel able to change how they behaved. Education and counselling or therapy as needed is far more likely to have a positive and lasting change on people and how they behave and interact with others in the future.

Albert Bandura's research into how children learn social behaviour is well known is psychology.

© 2013 Claire

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