By the time I was ten years old, I had had a sip of alcohol, and a puff of cigarette containing nicotine. I made a decision within the span of a month to never try it again and I stuck to that decision through college, grad school, and beyond. (I even started drinking for a period of 3 years in my thirties, realised the harmful effect it was having on my life, and went back to being a teetotaler.) People may argue a majority of ten year olds are incapable of making such judgements. I will argue that such people are not giving children a chance. Further, a majority of the adults are also incapable of making this decision. The problem with alcohol and cigarettes and other drugs isn't with children, but with the so called adults! Given that adults themselves have been shown to be incapable to handling these substances, can you trust them to decide what's better for the children?
There is no rhyme or reason to continue to insist that adults are somehow more capable of making ethical judgements. Adults form the government. Adults pass laws. They pass laws that advance their own agendas. In the name of protecting the children, Draconian laws are passed that serve to prohibit what adults find offensive to themselves. Adults don't care about what the children want. They care about what they want. Why is alcohol so widely accepted given all the damage it creates? Because the adults are unwilling to go without it. All of this boils down to just that: preferences of those who claim power over all people. Any one who thinks otherwise is being duped; adults have caused a thousand-fold more harm and suffering to people all over the world than children do to each other.
Strawman arguments of the form "would you let a five year old drive a car" are easily refuted. If a five year old can obtain a license, I think someone who is 5 years old has as much reason to enjoy the privilege of driving as someone who is 18 or 18. Still, the point is that certain activities can cause damage to a child and so perhaps it might be wise to use coercion to restrict children from indulging in such activities. Reasonable people can differ on this, but I will point out that these activities are just as likely to cause damage to and by adults as well, and it is plain hypocrisy to somehow use coercion to restrict children but not adults.
Therefore, it is important to make a distinction between activities that cause physical harm and activities that don't, a distinction that many contemporary journalists and lawmakers and other procensorship groups fail to make. They would compare looking at a pornographic image, for example, to driving a car, to win their procensorship arguments. The situations are entirely different. The latter can cause physical harm---the former can be offensive at worst. For example, smoking and drinking cause damage to the body. In a sense, it is a slow suicide. While I don't agree that laws against suicide should be passed, I do my best to encourage everyone I know to not end life in that manner. I would treat a child with no less respect. But there are adults who find ideas, words, and images so offensive that they think children should not even be exposed to them and allowed the opportunity to make their own decisions about the nature of the offensiveness.
I think this is a grave mistake. Children cannot be sheltered indefinitely. At some point, they may be exposed to things you don't want them exposed to. If a parent has done a great job of sheltering a child, then that child, when exposed to the material, may react in a negative manner. Whereas a child educated with proper values and whose freedom to make value judgements is not abridged by the parent or the governments may react in a positive manner. There is no coercive rule that can substitute for education.
While I had an healthy interest in the opposite sex, even when I was quite young, I was never into pornography. I'm sure I'd just have snickered at the age of five at the sight of pornographic images, and even at fourteen, when I had opportunities to watch pornographic movies, I could be found doing something else. When I was seven, I witnessed a show where a depiction of rape had taken place (i.e., the actual rape wasn't shown, but it was clear from the events that that's what had happened). At this age, I had no clue about what had happened and asked my aunt for clarification. My aunt patiently explained it to me (parts of which I got and parts of which I didn't, but I ended up with enough to make my own ethical judgement about the rightness and wrongness of the act). My mom upon hearing my aunt's explanation went something like: "but he's just a child... how can he understand this?" The answer follows.
My decisions to stop smoking when I was ten were made in the most innocent manner possible. My views about the wrongness of rape arose from a most innocent perspective. It was no different from realising that Darth Vader was bad and Luke Skywalker was good as depicted (or were they really?). My not getting into pornography was a personal choice. Children are going to come across this sooner or later. People argue that parents cannot be with their children at all times (which is how I was even able to do the things I did). But the important thing is that I was educated enough by my parents to make the appropriate value judgement. If you claim your children are incapable of making an ethical decision about the rightness or wrongness of such ideas and images, having the ability to comprehend the content in the ideas and images, then I will claim you have failed as a parent and as a teacher.
Censorship of ideas, words, and images is also heading down a slippery slope. If lawmakers can decide what's good for children to see, lawmakers can decide what's good for everyone to see. It is interesting to note that lawmakers focus most of their efforts on pornographic material, and not hundreds of other ideas and images which could be considered to be equally harmful. These days, it is the Internet that is the target of censorship by lawmakers. The media doesn't help in educating the people and appears to go out of its way to paint the wrong picture. Consider the article titled Porn Patrol by Dan Kennedy published in the March 6-13, 1998 issue of the Boston Phoenix. The article not only tries to justify the censorship of children on the Internet in the Boston Public Library, but also tries to argue (unsuccessfully) that children are incapable of making the same decisions that adults are. It is the typical inaccurate reporting we have come to expect from the media to further some specific personal cause (in this case, Kennedy's personal offensiveness with respect to images on the Internet are clearly obvious and bias the article entirely). In the last sentence of the article, Kennedy quotes Barry Crimmins playing god: "Ten-year-olds are not prepared to see depictions of rape and violence. Let them have some innocence." The sheer hubris of such a statement amazes me. Who is Barry Crimmins to say what children are prepared to see and what they should have?
Some people will argue that some children seek and enjoy pornography and therefore their access to it must be restricted. This argument, however misguided, may be well-intentioned (just as people might hide cigarettes of friends who smoke in order to get them to quit). Children who actively seek to commit such actions cannot claim innocence. I think if a child is (i) aware of what pornography is, (ii) has the ability and the skill to access it, and (iii) can comprehend what is being depicted, then the freedom to make their own decisions about its offensiveness should not be abridged (whether it can be effectively abridged is a separate argument). If a child has been properly educated, not only will it help in making such decisions, but it will also avoid them from inflicting harm on others and from being a victim. People often cite Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin with regards to the affect of pornography on children. Such arguments can be refuted on their own grounds, but if pornography can have a negative effect, I argue it has a greater positive effect. For example, even though I was never in this situation, after the explanation of rape by my aunt, I would not have kept silent at any violation of my body, as many children do. After witnessing the depiction of rape, I had an extremely clear idea of what was right and what was wrong. A sheltered child might not be able to make the same judgements.
I am not saying that indulging in pornography, drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes is a good thing, nor am I encouraging such indulgence. Far from it---I am pointing out that if adults can make choices about it, so can children. In fact, children educated properly will probably react in a more rational manner than their adult counterparts to these items. This is an assertion, but it is just as valid as the counterclaim, and there is support for it: adults are so attached to what they "know", that they routinely fail to think through a situation and just react in an extremely mechanical manner. Children are more likely to excerise their neural circuits when confronted with any sort of a dilemma, partly because their natural curiousity, and partly because of their lack of conditioning.
The fact is that we arbitrarily deem adults to be somehow superior and capable of handling things that we assume children cannot. This has two problems: we underestimate the capabilities of children and overestimate the capabilities of adults. I titled this article "children are better than adults". In a sense, children and adults should, I think, be able to make their own moral judgements. I only think that children are better in the sense that they are more unprejudiced, more honest, and more open-minded about making ethical judgements, due to their relative inexperience in this world. This inexperience, coupled with the right education, is a positive attribute, one that adults lack. After all, it was a child who said that the emperor had no clothes.
My viewpoints in this essay are even more reinforced given the recent spate of schoolroom shootings across the country. While the essay is mostly about censorship of thought, the (understandable) knee-jerk reactions of the affected public given the recent killings (i.e., censorship of violence depicted on TV, in music, in comic books, etc. along with gun control) illustrates two logical fallacies.
The first fallacy is in assuming that a dichotomy should exist between adults and children in terms how they deal with their environments. Regardless of how you look at children, whether they're innocent angels or cruel unethical brats, or anywhere in between, my point above is that the distribution with regards to adults is similar. Thus, in a pragmatic sense, children are better than adults because they don't do as much damage as adults do. At five or six, it's hard to cause damage (evidenced by the fact that when I play with Super Soakers and water balloons, the below-seven-year olds can't pull the trigger on my Super Soaker 3000 or throw a balloon hard enough to break it) or that all the odds injury are routinely overtime all the time if you consider it after the fact (which makes it paradoxical). Why be shocked when a child does once in a while what an adult does routinely everday?
The second fallacy is in assuming that the responsibility for the child's actions falls on certain specific external sources (like the TV they watch). Perhaps the children act the way they do because they are simply behaving like how adults behave (first point above), but perhaps, if children are truly special and unique, our treatment of them as a society is responsible for their actions. In other words, over protection and scapegoating discourages personal responsibility.