How Old Is Old Enough? A Look at When Children are Considered Adults





THIS past week the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether children should ever be sentenced to life without parole for crimes that don’t involve murder.

At the heart of the argument lies a vexing question: When should a person be treated as an adult?

The answer, generally, is 18 — the age when the United States, and the rest of the world, considers young people capable of accepting responsibility for their actions. But there are countless deviations from this benchmark, both around the world (the bar mitzvah, for instance), and within the United States...

... And if you think separating the men from the boys (or the women from the girls) is difficult today, tracing the history of America’s conception of childhood just complicates things further.

In the 19th century, teenagers were expected to raise their own children and work in the fields. This was true even though 19th-century teenagers were physically and intellectually less advanced than teenagers today. Thanks to better nutrition and more formal schooling, today’s children generally reach puberty earlier and are, at least in theory, more informed about the world around them.

In other words, the only thing that is consistent about our notions of when a child becomes an adult is our inconsistency, says Steven Mintz, a historian at Columbia University...

... In Florida, for instance, the state got tough on teenage criminals when juvenile crime rates jumped during the 1990s, threatening not only residents and visitors, but Florida’s bedrock tourism industry itself. Two such juvenile offenders, one who raped a woman when he was 13, and another who committed armed robbery at 16, brought the appeals heard by the Supreme Court last week...

... Over the years attempts have been made to align these various ages of majority. The voting age was lowered during the Vietnam War, for example, largely because Americans were uncomfortable with a democracy that forced 18-year-olds to die for their country but denied them suffrage...



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