It is appropriate for an Australia Day (January 26) column that I did not need to seek any further for inspiration than my own back yard. Australians love an anti-hero and the unanimous choice for Alternative Australian of the Year is Corey Delaney. This 16-year-old became the ultimate Australian party boy. Taking advantage of his parents’ holiday, he organised a party and advertised it on MySpace and on mobile phones. Police helicopters with searchlights were called in to contain the 500 teenaged guests. Their revel caused A$20,000 worth of damage, but Corey featured in a television interview.
The hand-wringing of the media about Corey’s misbehaviour and his unfortunate parents’ mystified response were the subject of much mirth in this house. He now has a legendary status among the under-18s. Corey rules.
However, adult opinion is divided about the Corey phenomenon. Is it a piece of holiday trivia signifying nothing or an example of the consequences of a teenager suffering the modern form of parental neglect — over indulgence and failure to use the NO word? In the media suggested courses of action for Corey ranged from punishments like a week without the internet and his mobile, (although I suspect a week on a desert island would not affect this young man’s ability to network) to fining his parents. However, Corey has had his taste of fame and fun and fining his parents is unlikely to have any effect on him. Lets face it, the boy is no candidate for the young Plato award.
But Corey seems pretty normal compared to some adolescents I know. Many adolescents from good families spend their lives see-sawing between a secret life of gross and dangerous experimentation with sex and drugs and doing the things that we parents actually want them to do, like studying.
Mostly they sort of struggle out of it in one piece, although occasionally bits do go missing — and I am not just talking about their hearing. A lot of them fudge the sexual morality department, and even the ones brought up in conservative religious backgrounds give it away by the time they are 20 — at least they do in Australia, the most irreligious country in the world.
Some people are remarkably naïve about all this. One man I spoke to as I researched this article, someone who actually goes around giving seminars on parenting, was quite adamant. A well brought up child will become a well adjusted, responsible adult. Really? But they don’t all, do they?
On the one hand we know that that adolescents can be big, silly children whose parents should have more control. But on the other hand as anyone who has had a child go off the rails knows, the actual ability of parents to discipline their adolescents is becoming more and more limited. And these days they are often thwarted by the medical and educational establishments and by the various agencies of the social welfare bureaucracy.
In fact, despite all the hand wringing about future Coreys there is a growing institutional bias against parental authority.
The term "Gillick competence" is not something you hear every day. But parents should know about it. Gillick competence is a term used in medical law (as defined by the Gillick case) to decide whether a child aged 16 or younger is able to consent to his or her own medical treatment, without the need for parental permission or knowledge.
Yes, you read that correctly. Medical practitioners in Australia and the UK are not only not obliged to discuss the medical affairs of adolescents under 16 with their parents — they could be prosecuted for doing so. Most parents are quite ignorant of this. I was, and the proverbial scales didn’t fall from my eyes until recently.
I was engaged in conversation with a friend who has had a boy in a deep trouble over sex and drugs and another friend who is a GP. My friend asked the GP whether she would prescribe the pill to a 13 or 14-year-old girl and she answered "yes, of course". Why? Firstly she would assume that the child was already sexually active and, secondly, if that was the case, she regarded her actions as a form of harm minimization.
Her presumption appalled me. She was not interested in the long-term harm done to a sexually precocious child, nor (despite her visible discomfort when I asked her how she would feel if this had happened to her own 14-year-old) was she concerned that this child’s parents might have other ideas which clashed with hers, and might be unaware of their daughter’s sexual activity. She apparently felt no obligation towards them and didn’t think they had any right to know. Her only concern was whether the law had given her protection and the right to act in confidence.
As an extension of this widely held notion of adolescent competence is the idea of adolescent rights, in the name of which parents are frequently confronted by inexplicable undermining of a child’s welfare by the very people who are supposed to be supporting it — the social services networks. I know of a case in which a 16-year-old girl ran off with a 40-year-old man. But government bureaucrats refused to supply the mother with any details of her whereabouts.
Likewise, I know of parents trying to find children who have been living on the streets, or in one case in my own city of Canberra, in a local hostel, aka the drug den, where at least one well-brought-up young person has died of a methadone overdose. But the social security authorities refused to tell his parents where he was, even though all the kids there are being supported by social security payments.
But you don’t have to have a child go off the rails to be confronted with the hypocrisy of modern thinking which demands parental action on the one hand and subverts parental authority with the other.
In one school at which I taught it was necessary to get written parental permission to show children in Year 8 Baz Lurhmann’s M-rated film Romeo and Juliet. On the other hand, there were posters all down the hall featuring kids of the same sex holding hands and looking deeply into one another’s eyes, urging "gay" kids to stand up for their rights. Every government high school has some sort of programme which deals with sexuality in a way which treats sex and conception as two completely separate things and the natural family as just a lifestyle option, while also treating many forms of sexual deviancy from homosexuality to transexuality as normal.
The new science of the teen brain
Some doctors and psychologists are perfectly comfortable with this crazy state of affairs .(Indeed Gillick competence does have some useful applications in the treatment of chronically ill children.) However, others more knowledgeable think that we have gone too far with it. Michael Carr-Gregg is a prominent adolescent psychologist who supports Gillick competence, but does thinks that the idea of adolescent competence is being taken too far. Steve Biddulph is an expert on boys’ psychology and much in demand by the media. Both are anxious to emphasise a new factor in the problem of adolescent development.
The new science of brain development actually proves that the notion of competence as most parents know, actually evolves as the physical circuitry of adolescent brains grows and develops. Biddulph’s message to parents and educators is that: "the teenage brain is very unformed, it rebuilds from13 to about 19 and is changed in structure so comprehensively that it makes decision-making and logical thinking very hard for teenagers, especially if they are stressed or distracted. So the adults have to stay close to the action and not leave kids alone or with too much freedom. There are even good brain research arguments for delaying the driving licence to 18."
Which is to say that it is adults who need to teach competence to children. And this puts the whole notion of adolescents making decisions as momentous as when to start a sexual relationship (let alone when to drive) without consulting their parents, in quite a different light. These new scientific findings have huge social policy ramifications which if ever tested in the courts, will change everything.
The new science of brain formation is also a very important development in the understanding of how to teach children to gain the moral competence which they need to fully understand the repercussions of their actions. It has led some people into interesting by-ways.
Andrew Mullins is a headmaster at Redfield college in Sydney who has written in MercatorNet before about the importance of working on character or virtue by building up habit formation ie, neural pathways, in early childhood and later childhood. He talks about the new "science" of virtue and character formation: "These discoveries validate an emphasis on good habits as the core business of character formation. They vindicate a virtue based vision of human flourishing. As a consequence of these neuroscientific advances virtue development can be placed squarely back onto parenting, pre-school, publishing and political agendas."
Angela Conway, of the Australian Family Association, makes a similar point: work on a person’s character and neural pathways must start in infancy. If these foundations are good then adolescence should be easier to negotiate.
It sounds plausible. But unfortunately it isn’t foolproof, as I and many of my ultra-conscientious friends have discovered. Why? Because of the pressures on young people from outside their family structure are becoming huge, as the traditional family becomes more and more a minority life style.
The subtle usurpation of childhood norms adds to the confusion caused by their cognitive "scrambling" between the ages of 13 and 19. There you have the recipe for chaos, an implosion of their delicately honed habitual universe .In fact, unlike Andrew Mullins, I suspect that the more rigid the habit formation is, the more likely it is that you will have a recipe for rebellion.
So does this mean that Australian youth is a potential army of would-be event planners like Corey? To a certain extent the answer is Yes. Corey is the average Aussie kid writ large — hence his hero status! But at least it has us talking about the contradictions of parental authority. As Angela Conway says: "I suspect that Corey is like a lot of kids who haven’t received much character formation. Hopefully we are at the beginning of a debate about parenting in Australia."
Angela Shanahan is a Canberra newspaper columnist.