Yes, parents should be responsible for their children (or legal dependents), even if their children are somehow beyond their control.
There have always been debates about good and bad parenting, with various methods proposed to create healthy, productive adults. Science has added to this debate; we can now prove that some parenting behaviors are always destructive to children. Theories continue to come in and out of fashion on the best ways to teach and nurture children. But we must also remember that children are not passive agents. There is no “blank slate” on which we write the personalities and decisions of our youth. Sometimes even the best parents produce bad children because the children pursue their own opinions, beliefs, and decisions.
So let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that child criminal behavior is inevitable. Even in a perfect world we would have criminals and underage criminals. How can society cope with an inevitable problem? If children are solely held accountable for their actions, even at a young age, we risk ignoring important underlying factors such as abuse or negligence – factors that can be prevented. I believe that children are active in their own growing up, but that doesn’t mean that they grow up on their own. If some form of abuse contributes to their delinquency, it should be punished as a means of protecting that child and other children.
The legal system must also take a stand on this issue: who is accountable? Because the legal system ideally works upon logical reason and precedent – to ensure equal and fair trials for all – it must build a foundation on this issue from which to view all cases. That is why, upon hearing a modern case, lawyers refer to many previous and similar cases in legal history. If parents are held accountable, it affirms to society that they must take pains to properly care for their progeny. If they don’t, their child can wrought a form of justice by bringing the court down upon a bad parent. A system of this design will protect the least powerful and most susceptible members of our society. Fortunately very few children have enough foresight to use this system to their advantage. This assumes, of course, that abusive childhoods produce more criminal children – an idea supported by psychology.
But what about the cases that defy the norm? The good parents and normal childhoods that create bad children? There are no doubt real court cases out there that deal with this issue and do hold the child accountable. The problem is that in the interest of fairness, the system will disappoint a few in favor of the whole. No institution is perfect, and I agree that this is the price we pay for a legal system that values equality and fairness.
Holding parents responsible upholds a standard of acceptable child-rearing behavior and sends a clear message to society: this is good, that is not. And by holding legal adults accountable, we rest value and responsibility in society upon people capable of complex and rational reasoning – even if some individuals fail to use that capacity. This idea and system is based upon the biological fact that your brain continues to develop and expand its reasoning potential until your early-twenties. As we grow up, our capacity for complex and rational thought expands.
If the legal system were to rest value upon the undeveloped mind – the logic and reason of an eight-year-old – we would lend credibility to illogical and irrational modes of thinking. In short, a child’s reasoning would be valid in court. Call me crazy but I don’t think “because it’s not fair” should be a valid argument when a criminal doesn’t want to go to jail.
The next questions to pose would be: at what age does a child become a legal adult? And should criminal children be sent to kiddie jail? How do you rehabilitate any criminal? Those questions and debates I leave open for another discussion.