An abused child is picked up by social service workers after years of living on the street. The officers who see her remark how, despite her age, she behaves like an "adult". Another child commits a brutal murder. Politicians take to the mics and declare their support for "adult time for adult crime". Meanwhile, a twenty year old college student seems particularly bubbly and effervescent in class, leading her friends to remark on how childish she seems. These instincts reveal something fundamental but often forgotten about how we view children and childhood. Childhood isn't a static category applicable to anyone within the ages of 0 to 18. Rather, it is a contingent characterization dependent on social expectations and how individuals match them.
Yet often times, law, and indeed, much child development research, seems to take as a presumption that childhood can be isolated as a stable subject. When determining what rights and obligations to give and demand of minors, the law often makes assertions such as "Most children, even in adolescence, simply are not able to make sound judgments concerning many decisions, including their need for medical care or treatment" (Parham v. J.R. 442 U.S. 584, 603 (1979)). Not only is this probably a misstatement of even the dominant view of adolescent decision making capabilities, but it also takes as an unstated assumption that the decision making abilities of children are something static, unconnected with the legal and social environment that they are raised in.
It is this mistake that Emily Buss looks to tease out the implications of in her current work, "What the Law Should (and Should Not) Learn from Child Development Research". At times, the law simply seems to ignore child development research. At other times, it uses it, but in a very prescriptive way that does not contemplate that child capabilities might shift depending on legal and social contexts. But occasionally, the law does seem to take notice of how its own messages and prescriptions do not just manage but also create the developmental capacities of the children it watches over.