The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments today for two cases that ask whether juvenile criminals convicted of homicide can be sentenced to life without parole. (The cases’ backgrounds are here and here.)

At the heart of both is the question that parents of teens face constantly: How much accountability should we demand from almost-adults?


Just last week, readers made this point in the comments section of a post about how much we ask of our children. Many wrote of our low expectations of teens. At the same time, parenting experts are increasingly raising alarms that our generation’s tendency to go easy on teens, and kids in general, robs them of the skills and confidence they need to embrace adulthood.

On the flip side, we now know that teen brains are still in development.

Several prominent child advocates have pointed to recent evidence in neuroscience to argue that teenagers should not be considered slighter versions of adults — not in prison, or anywhere else.

One of them is David Fassler, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and director of advocacy and public policy at the Vermont Center for Children, Youth & Families. Earlier this month, for Huffington Post, he wrote:

“Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that adolescents actually use their brains differently than adults when reasoning or solving problems. For example, they tend to rely more on these instinctual structures, like the amygdala, and less on the more advanced areas, like the frontal lobes, which are associated with more goal oriented and rational thinking. They also tend to misread social cues, such as the emotions associated with facial expressions.”

… Based on the stage of their brain development, they are more likely to act on impulse, more likely to misread or misinterpret social cues and emotions, and less likely think twice, change their mind, or pause to consider the consequences of their actions.”

Last fall David Dobbs explored the evolution of teen brains for National Geographic and came to a related conclusion. Dobbs’ piece, titled “Beautiful Brains,” (which might not be the term parents readily use for what drives their teen’s actions) explained why the maturation may be attributed to natural selection:

“Excitement, novelty, risk, the company of peers. These traits may seem to add up to nothing more than doing foolish new stuff with friends. Look deeper, however, and you see that these traits that define adolescence make us more adaptive, both as individuals and as a species. That’s doubtless why these traits, broadly defined, seem to show themselves in virtually all human cultures, modern or tribal.”

From a parenting perspective, how much does understanding the maturation process make a difference in terms of accountability?

From a societal perspective, how much should it make a difference in terms of punishment?

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