Mini-Feature: The End of Childhood Innocence

Children are often considered and referred to as "innocent." When does that cease?

When they first knowingly do wrong. The scale of such novice wrong acts, however, is usually so minor (due to the limited capabilities of the child inside and out) that the generic innocence of children is still felt to cling to them.

The closer you get to the age of maturity, however, the more reasons to knowingly do wrong accumulate, and there is no escape from learning this too over the same time span. So the real end of innocence comes not just when you know you’ve chosen to do wrong and do it, but when you know that you have done this at a point in your life when even you reasonably expect yourself to “know better” when it comes to dealing with the often sudden irruption of these decision points into your day and your soul.

Such a realization can come earlier in some than others, and the deep context surrounding one’s status in this regard that can make the difference between punishment and clemency is typically only the province of family and very close friends.

The attempt to codify these subtle shades of gray into legal doctrines has not been very successful, nor has been the countervailing effort to grant judges the legal authority to parse the shades from the bench. Children are innocent of the law in this double sense: not only as people granted clemency where adults would not be, but people whose development into moral maturity operates in ways ultimately beyond the reach, or even the comprehension, of the law.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

The innocence of children is overemphasized, if by "innocent" we mean a lack of malice or nastiness. No one is more selfish, demanding, and petulant than children, and their incessant lying is only cute because it is so poorly executed. It is a measure of the great forbearance and mercy of the law courts of Victorian England that, though they frequently sentenced young children to death by hanging for stealing apples, these sentences were rarely carried out.

Students of the brain now purport to have discovered that the parts that govern self-control and the moral sense may not reach full development until we are in our mid-twenties. Hence, goes the argument, it is not really fair to assign criminal responsibility to murderers or rapists who still have to put down a large deposit in order to rent a car. But you could make the opposite argument, from a eugenic standpoint—though it wouldn't be popular: by aggressively removing our young deviants from the prospective mating pool, we could select for high impulse control and gentleness in the population.

On the other hand, this could hasten the softening of America, with a population of dopey looking Eloi types sniffing flowers. We need our youth to have some aggression, or else who will fight the forever wars? The answer is probably mandatory military school, rather than prison or the death penalty, for the most obstreperous youth.

But seriously, though, if we accept the idea that people don't really lose their innocence until they are 25 or so, what are we to make of proposals to lower the voting age to 16? If voting is the most sacred duty of all—the most precious exercise of "Our Democracy"—then why should the franchise be extended to the precocious and half-formed? 

The smart thing would be to raise the voting age, in order to ensure that our electorate is composed of responsible, sober adults. Probably the best system would set the voting age for a particular office at the minimum age of service for that office. Thus, only people 30 and up could vote for senator, and 35 and up for president. 

Another idea would be to assign votes by the number of birthdays the voter has had. This would dilute the childishness of younger voters while rewarding those who bothered to stick it out and remain alive.

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

In the absolute sense, children are not innocent—nobody is. I have had occasion before in these discussions to mention St. Augustine’s famous childhood memory of stealing pears: “It was foul, and I loved it. I loved to perish. I loved my own error—not that for which I erred, but the error itself.” In the divine sense, we are all condemned already from our mother’s womb but for Christ’s saving mercy. “Anyone who is angry with his brother shall be subject to judgment.” When does our heart begin churning out impieties that deep? When do we start to think bad thoughts? There is only one cogent answer to that question: we lost our innocence, all of us, before we were born. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” 

But when we speak of childhood innocence, we speak “after the manner of men”—in human terms, about the things of this world. In those terms we do indeed speak about something real, something inestimably precious. It is still not innocence in the strict sense of having never done harm—children who have done plenty of small harms are still thought and spoken of in this way. We mean something more like naïveté, or else a blameless kind of ignorance. We mean the purity of a mind that wouldn’t even think to imagine the horrors and perversities of which adults are capable.  

If nature is allowed to run its course, I suspect that this kind of innocence fades gradually with the onset of sexual maturity. Our erotic desires—fearsome and incomprehensible to us even as adults—are the source of both joys and miseries so complex, so intense, that we have only ever been able to think of them as a kind of divine or satanic madness. To induct children into those holy and radioactive mysteries before their time has come—by poisoning their minds with gender-bending mania, by abandoning them to the sex-drenched world of unsupervised smartphone use, by doing still worse and even unmentionable things—is to sin indeed.  

The perpetrators of such atrocities, those who rip innocence from the hearts of babes, will be perilously answerable for their crimes before God. For "If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” I would not like to be standing too close to such people on judgment day.  

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind