In rebutting the defense’s closing argument at the George Zimmerman trial, prosecutor John Guy said of Trayvon Martin: "Was that child not in fear when he was running from that defendant? Isn't that every child's worst nightmare, to be followed on the way home in the dark by a stranger? That was Trayvon Martin's last emotion.”
My ears pricked up at this reference. Martin was 17, and typically we don’t refer to a 17-year-old as a child, except in the genealogical sense (“I have three children: a 17-year-old, a 12-year-old and an 8-year old.”) But it was obvious why Guy chose that word.
By contrast, in a crucial passage in his closing, Zimmerman lawyer Mark O’Mara referred to Martin as the “person who decided ... it was going to be a violent event” and “the guy who decided not to go home when he had a chance to.”
From the time Zimmerman’s killing of Martin became a cause celebre, those arguing for “Justice for Trayvon” have emphasized his youth, and Zimmerman’s defenders have complained about out-of-date photos of Martin that made him look like a winsome tween. (But according to the Martin family's lawyer, the most widely circulated "old" photo of Trayvon was taken when he was 16.)
The debate over whether Martin should be called a child reflects a larger inconsistency in the way we -- and by “we,” I include the news media -- describe teenagers. “Youths” (or “yoots,” as Joe Pesci called them in “My Cousin Vinny”) are often up to no good. Either they’re stealing cars or, as in a recent L.A. Times story, smoking. (That story, headlined “Smoking among youths at a new low,” referred to a study that included eighth-graders, not usually described as youths.)
“Teenagers,” however, is a pretty neutral descriptor, though the abbreviation “teens” is often reserved for wholesome kids who are tutoring underprivileged preschoolers or going on charity walks. “Teens” also die tragically in car crashes (some of them caused by reckless youths).
Sometimes the choice of term has a political or ideological purpose. Take the controversy over laws requiring that parents be notified if their underage daughter seeks an abortion. If you oppose such laws, you probably don’t want to refer to the patient as a child. Thus, a fact sheet from the National Abortion Foundation reports: “Of teenage women who become pregnant, about 35% choose to have an abortion rather than bear a child.”
“Teenage women” is a pretty bizarre locution. (Was Trayvon Martin a “teenage man”?) But it reflects the agenda of opponents of parental-notification laws. Opponents of such laws will be careful to refer to pregnant teenagers as “girls” or “children.”
We see the same language games in the controversy over access to contraceptives. We’ve all heard the complaint that “the school needs my permission to give my child an aspirin, so why should it be able to give her a birth control pill?”
Journalistic convention and political manipulation aside, the inconsistency in the way we refer to teenagers reflects the fact that they partake of both adult and childish traits. A lot of them work, unless they are part of the “youth unemployment” problem. But they also can display immaturity not that different from what you see in a 12-year-old.
Still, it would be nice if we could agree on a term that would be applied equally to teenagers whether they are behaving admirably or offensively. To level the playing field, maybe the next story about a high school kid shaving his head in solidarity with a teammate stricken with cancer should be headlined “Youth cuts off his hair,” while the new preferred style for the crime blotter should be “Teen holds up liquor store.”
Just don’t call them children.