Shauna Van Praagh is a professor of law at McGill University (childhood and adolescence in law)
Last weekend, the Rio Olympic Games came to a festive close. Canadians were proud as Penny Oleksiak, a 16 year old swimmer and multiple medal winner, carried our flag. Throughout these Games, as with their predecessors, there were so many occasions to marvel at young athletes. We were impressed by precocious ability and promise, by the sacrifices made by these adolescents, by the risks taken to reach the required levels of excellence. Like Penny, these are strong young people – confident and ready to stand up for themselves and their country, even if they’re not yet grown up.
On the same weekend, we were shocked to learn of the actions of another young teenager. This one was nameless, identified only as being a boy between the ages of 12 and 14. He was a suicide bomber who blew himself up at a wedding party in Turkey, killing dozens of people, including more than 20 who, like him, were under the age of 14. The tragedy was made even more unbearable by the targeting of children. From the young wedding guests to the wearer of the suicide vest, these young people were characterized as vulnerable victims who now will never grow up.
Our initial reaction is one of horror and anger. We mourn the lost and short lives, despise the use of a child in terrorist warfare, and underscore the need to protect young people. But the sharply contrasting image from the Olympics challenges us to rethink a heartfelt but somewhat simplistic response. We miss important truths about childhood and adolescence if we describe them primarily as periods of helplessness and victimization. Being young is more complicated than that.
The easy response to the tragedy is to demonize whomever – allegedly and not surprisingly Islamic State – would treat children as full-fledged participants in bloody warfare, whether as potential combatants or targets. But young people are already participants, on every side and everywhere. They do not grow up on the margins; they are not insulated from what’s going on around them or from the causes that matter to their families, communities, states or movements. While they may be vulnerable, they are also accountable as actors, decision-makers, leaders, and even warriors. A young suicide bomber can be both agent and victim at the same time.
Throughout the world, we expect adolescents to develop their autonomy; we celebrate their active engagement in projects that matter to their societies; we admire their tenacity; we suffer through their resistance. We encourage them to take responsibility, to make greater efforts, even to make sacrifices for their future. We worry about them, even as we are in awe of the ways in which they forge their own paths and stand up for themselves. Sometimes they make big mistakes and all we can do is hope they survive to try again.
All of these things are as true in conflict as they are in peace. Perhaps it’s not surprising that contemporary literature aimed at young adolescents – from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games – features girls and boys making the transition to women and men in full-out battle mode. Just as in real life, the protagonists don’t all survive the fight against evil. But those stories remind us that youth is not just about staying safe, protected or simply alive. It’s also about standing up, and accepting the burdens and consequences that come with choices and actions.
This summer, as we celebrate the accomplishments of young people in Rio, we mourn the loss of young people in Turkey. By placing them side-by-side, we’re reminded that adolescence always combines vulnerability and strength. We can’t, and don’t necessarily want to, keep youth out of all danger. In response to the young suicide bomber, the most effective way to counter Islamic State isn’t to point at how they treat children. Instead it’s to ensure young people everywhere participate in building a future they think is worth growing up for.Report Typo/Error
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