With Aisha Jallow

At what age can we say that a person can be fully responsible for one’s actions?
Five, 12 or 18 years old? Think about this for a moment while you contemplate the fact that the human brain is not fully developed until you are 25 years old. When our kids have done something wrong we question them and ask how they could be so stupid to do whatever error they are guilty of. Anger, fatigue, frustration and other emotions are blocking our minds and we question our kids as if they were adults.

How many of us adults don’t do mistakes every day? Do we shout and yell at each other? Do we hit our spouses or colleagues with a stick or a flip-flop if they drop something on the ground and it breaks? Do we tell our friends to go to bed without supper because they have misbehaved? No, of course not! We show them understanding, we might get irritated but we don’t punish them. How come we feel we have the liberty to punish our kids severely? How come we even think it is okay to imprison kids who are 12 years old and above? Think of it for a while! They are too young to be locked in with no one to speak to and who can comfort them. Being locked in is a scary experience, being bullied and beaten every day will damage the soul of a growing child. Imagine how these damages will affect the child when it grows up to be an adult.

The progress of the human body is amazing! Think of newborn horses or cattle; they can stand up and take some steps just a short while after they are born. Human babies are completely dependent on their parents to care for their needs. Human babies are born with weak limbs and a head that is proportionally seen too big compared with the rest of the body. The head is not growing as much as the rest of the body. The brain reaches 95% of its full size at 6 years old, and full size at 11-12 years old. About then, at the time of puberty, we have maximum connections between the nerv cells in our brain but it is not only the size of the brain that matters.

We are not as smart at the age of 12, the connection between our nerv cells slowly decreases but instead they get stronger and more efficient. You could say that what you do during your teenage years are affecting your brain, this means that what you focus on doing is affecting certain parts of your brain. There is a battle of survival between the nerv cells in our brains, the scientists call it ”use it or lose it” which means that you lose the nerv cells you don’t use. All of the nerv cells can’t survive, nature has equipped us with too many. Isn’t it about time we begin to consider what imprint we wish to do on our kids? You know the saying: ”Kids don’t do as we say, they do as we do.”

Are we the good rolemodels we wish that we are? If we solve discussions by raising our voices and curse each other we teach our children to do the same. If we try to stay calm and understanding our kids will copy our behaviour and slowly learn to act the same way. I know that it’s not easy to always be patient, especially when our kids know exactly what is triggering us, but we must be the adults. We are big and scary, we have the power over our children’s lives and they know that. We have the power to make their lives miserable as well as the ability to make them happy. Is happiness that important, you might ask? Isn’t it enough to be fed and clothed, happiness is overrated.

What is making kids happy is individual of course, but they need to feel loved. Showing love and affection doesn’t cost us anything and we must never take for granted that our kids know that we love them if we don’t show them that.

Why is it easier to tell your spouse that you love him/her? Why are we shy to tell our kids the same thing? The love for our spouse can end, but the love for our children will always be there no matter what happens in life.

So what about the kids who are in jail? Doesn’t anyone love them? Don’t they love their parents and miss them a lot? All cases are individual, of course, but how many kids and parents who are separated go to bed in tears every night? Have you thought of what has made the kids act in a way that the society believes it is for their own good to be in custody?

It is very easy to say that they must have deserved it otherwise they wouldn’t be incarcerated. Kids don’t end up in jail just like that, something serious must have happened, but how much do we care about their well-being? Do we even care if they are well or not? Should they just be locked in for a while so they can consider their sins and get on with their lives as honest citizens? Do they automatically change for the better when they are in prison? If it would be so simple we could put more people in jail, like some kind of an institution that transforms bad people to good ones. I’m sure you could think of a number of people you would love to see behind bars for a while.

The problem with imprisoning kids is that they don’t understand why they are locked in. They don’t fully comprehend the consequences of their actions and they don’t understand why they can’t go home. Kids have a good sense for what is right or wrong, but they are not able to see the whole picture. Go back to the information I have you at the beginning of this article: the human brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. That is when the last part of the brain is fully developed. The part where your decisions are made is called the frontal lobe, it is placed in your forehead. Abilities as making plans for the future, having an overview, screen impressions and estimate risks are placed in the frontal lobe. The skull feels hard, but it is actually fragile and small; children’s skulls are vulnerable. Imagine a blow to the head, a whack with a hand or any kind of object how it can damage a growing brain.

Not all children are brought up in loving homes with two parents who care for their every need. There are many reasons for why a child is suffering and that has to be taken under consideration before you judge its actions. These cases are more complicated than dealing with adults, even if you might think the opposite. Adults can lie and intrigue, they can hide their emotions and have a strategy for their actions. Children are more direct, but if they hide something it is because of fear. The kids fear the consequences, not because they understand what is going to happen to them, the fear of a punishment is severe enough for them. How many times have mothers all over the world threatened their misbehaving kids with:” Just you wait until your father comes home!”

The kid doesn’t know what the father is going to do with it, it makes up all these awful punishments in its imagination and that can be worse than the actual punishment. Imagine to stay waiting for your punishment for hours and hours. You can’t eat, relax or do anything useful because you are terrified. The unknown has always been scary, it doesn’t matter if we are kids or adults. Having a punishment hanging over your head like a grey sky is making it impossible to see the sun. Nothing anyone says or does can take that grey cloud away. If we feel the urge to punish our kids it is better to do it at once instead of making it wait.

When I speak about punishment I don’t mean beating a child. We need to consider that the child’s brain is not fully developed so we can’t expect the child to make the same kind of decisions as an adult. It is not because it doesn’t want to, it is because it is not able to. We might find some kids very mature, some of our teenagers are tall and look like grown ups. Don’t let this fool you, they still have a long way to go before they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions. This is why we must be their rolemodels and we must speak with them. It is a huge difference between speaking TO someone or speaking WITH them. Giving directions, telling orders is not a conversation.

Interrogating a child is a delicate matter. The child must have some kind of emotional support when the interrogation takes place. A parent, a close relative to which the child has a safe relation or a social worker. The child must be able to feel that someone is on their side, to protect the child no matter what it is guilty of. There are always reasons for why people act in one way or another, the crux is to find out the reasons. Sometimes it can take a long time, years even, before the truth appears. Let’s say that a child has committed a criminal action and it was forced to that by some other child, perhaps a teenager who is big and tough. These tough guys often use younger and weaker kids to committ crimes for them.

The young kids wish to please the tough guys but at the same time they are terrified of them. In these gangs there is this code of honour that you don’t tell on each other, if you do then you will be severely punished by the gang members. The child might have been threatened with death if it tells on anyone, so it will remain silent no matter what. The gang members might have been threatening to harm the child’s family. Imagine to have this on your shoulders as a young child! You feel that you must protect your family so you keep things to yourself. You don’t care if you yourself get punished as long as nothing happens to your family.

Do we sense that fear in a child when we question its actions? We are angry, we ask the same questions over and over again. We get upset, raise our voices and even threaten to hit the child. Imagine the trap we have put our child in to. The child feels that it doesn’t matter what it does, everything will go wrong anyway. If you tell your parents and the police you will get punished. If anyone in the gang finds out that you have told your parents and the police the truth, either you or your family will be harmed – even killed. How can a child choose between these two options? It is like asking someone to choose between plague or cholera.

So ask yourself; at what age can you take full responsibility for your actions? Isn’t it about time we begin to search for what is hiding behind the obvious? Kids who do wrong need help to do right. That is how we teach them to take responsibility – not by punishing them.

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