You see it a lot: “But they were young!” people say whenever a young person does something stupid. Or even downright wrong. It’s a poor excuse. “Being young” does not lessen the effects of your unwise actions on other people. It does not somehow make the bad decisions less stupid, or the results less catastrophic. So why lessen the consequences, merely as a function of age? And at what point do we draw the line between ‘young’ and ‘not-so-young’ anymore, when we are suddenly fully accountable for everything anyway?
The older people are, the more they tend to pull out this ridiculous ‘but they were young’ excuse. It is a strongly held belief of mine that a person can be judged for their actions all throughout their life. Indeed, it could be considered especially important to go hard responding to actions in the teenage formative years. After all, if you don’t learn the consequences of your actions then, when will you?
Try exploring problematic actions of young characters in literature and you’ll see what I mean. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry gets a hold of, and reads, The Life and Lies of Albus Dumbledore. This book within the book is a biography about a person Harry had considered a hero written by unscrupulous journalist Rita Skeeter. It reveals that Dumbledore once advocated for wizards to rule over muggles, and worse, believed terrible things could be done for the “greater good.” Harry is, to put it lightly, very distressed by this. He discusses it with Hermione, and she tries to comfort him with the excuse that Dumbledore was ‘young’ when he did and thought those things alongside Grindelwald. Harry, like me, doesn’t swallow this. He says: “They were the same age we are now. And here we are, risking our lives to fight the Dark Arts, and there he was, in a huddle with his new best friend, plotting their rise to power over the Muggles” (294). This powerful quotation really captures how I feel about the ‘youth’ excuse. It’s also one of the few times in the series where I agree with Harry over Hermione.
What Dumbledore and Grindelwald were doing at age 17 was deeply wrong – most people will agree with that. However, they then will go down the ‘but they were young’ path. They try to lessen Dumbledore’s wrongs, and shift the blame for Ariana’s death off of him. I can’t do that. Yes, the Ariana backstory is horrible, but I wouldn’t assuage Albus Dumbledore’s guilt. He deserves to feel bad about it. He should have known better.
People then plead, as Hermione does, that Dumbledore changed. That he, for the majority of his adult life, fought against muggle oppression – the very oppression he had advocated for in his youth. But you can’t wipe what he did as a young person, just because he did the right thing later. In fact, if he hadn’t done the wrong thing and learned from it, he mightn’t have done all of the things we respect his character for doing. In other words, his terrible actions as a young person are the crucial catalyst for Dumbledore’s character growth. As such, trying to downplay the enormity of the issue would simply be counterproductive. He lived out his punishment, spending his whole life attempting to atone for his actions.
So, the next time a young person does something dumb, I implore adults not to let them off lightly. Young people aren’t stupid, so don’t treat us like we are. If we do something wrong, we deserve to live out all the consequences, including having a besmirched record, and imprisonment where appropriate. After all, we are approaching adulthood, and a crucial part of that is accepting full responsibility for our actions. Let us become better, more responsible people – not in spite of our poor decisions, but because of them. Let all of us put an end to this “they were young” rubbish. Repeat after me: Riddikulus!