Saturday, 8 October 2011

Choose your own adventure... Age 14

‘Take the blue pill the story ends and you wake up in your bed and you believe whatever you choose to believe… take the red pill and you stay in wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes’ – The Matrix

I have always loved ‘choose your own adventure’ books.  It’s a simple yet delightful concept of multiple possible endings to a story where the reader is often the hero or central character in the book. Apart from confessing that I still occasionally indulge – the books were a large part of my world at age 14. The concept of being able to choose a different outcome fascinated me and formed part of my decision-making matrix. Despite this (or in part due to this) my ability to make decisions at 14 years of age was quite flawed.

A recent incident highlighted by the media (7/10/2011) involved a 14 year old boy who also made a rather poor decision. For whatever reason, he decided to purchase an amount of an illegal substance in Indonesia (where the substance is considered a narcotic).

There has been much attention given to this story as it involves multiple layers of topical issues. A 14 year old boy on drug charges. An Australian citizen overseas caught in possession of an illegal substance, held in detention.  Not to mention the political jostling it affords our ex-prime minister who is himself suffering from a touch of  ‘relevance deprivation syndrome’ (his recently quoted and quite apt descriptor of a media commentator).

Yet the most alarming point from my perspective is one that may not make the debate at all - what decision making capacity will this 14 year old individual have in four years time? Or ten years time? Whether or not the 14 year old individual in question is punished in Indonesia or Australia is irrelevant. More importantly – how does he develop his decision- making skills and avoid becoming part of our increasing prison population statistics?

Perhaps we can apply a ‘choose your own adventure’ analysis. Lets take the ‘red pill’ and turn to page 96 to see how our 14 year old hero fares in a hypothetical situation. After returning to Australia he is placed in juvenile detention. He serves his time and is released under the guidance of a mentor and case worker. Fast forward four years and our hero is faced with another choice of participating in a risk-reward scenario where the reward is now financial gain. He takes the risk. This time he can no longer be sent to juvenile detention. Accused of armed robbery he is placed on remand in a medium to maximum security male prison. 

Our hero (now 18 years of age) has not been convicted or sentenced. He finds himself in an environment where up to 50% of the population is Hepatitis C positive. Where substance use within the prison population is rife. Where he is subjected to threats, intimidation and physical harm multiple times per day.  Decisions inside the four walls of the prison are seemingly made for him – but are they? He is sentenced and released after time served and is now in possession of a permanent criminal record. This new classification (ex-prisoner) comes with all sorts of bonus prizes including – difficulty gaining employment or housing and a one in 10 chance of death within the first twelve months of release.  Not the happiest of endings for the red pill.

Take the blue pill, turn to page 84 and our hero is released from detention in Indonesia. He wakes up in Australia and is greeted with a horde of people outside his central coast residence taking pictures of his every move. He is verbally reprimanded for his crime and returns to school after an eventful holiday. Fast forward four years and he is faced with another choice of participating in a risk-reward scenario where the reward is financial gain. He takes the risk.  A big night of success at the casino (celebrating a friends birthday) – has resulted in our hero amassing a large sum of money. He gambles everything he has on the number 14 and loses it all.  So much for the lucky blue pill.

Clearly – not all choices have equal ramifications and not all circumstances are the same. The examples given were meant to be extreme and also to highlight that decision making is not a genetically pre-determined ability. It is a learnt skill and continually evolving. Human beings are all afforded the opportunity to obtain new knowledge and add to our decision making capabilities independently of age. Fortunately, my decision making skills since age 14 have managed to improve over time as a result of being taught by a number of different people, but also by being in an environment that was safe enough to allow for mistakes.

So who is responsible for ensuring that 14 year olds making poor decisions don't end up in jail at 18? If you think it’s the role of parents turn to page 54… if you think it should be part of formal education at a school level turn to page 76… If you think its up to the individual turn to page 87 …