On Childhood and Citizenship

To my mind, sixteen seems to young to do most stuff, but eighteen seems to old to prevent someone from driving or having sex. What say we just agree to split the difference, and have a universal age of adulthood at age 17?

For those that are interested, I’m thoroughly enjoying my think-tankery, although its one of the reasons (along with the theft) why I’ve not been as regular with my movements here.

One project we’ve been working on is the publication of a book on 14-19 education. We hosted a debate in March with Policy Exchange, which I wrote up for OurKingdom:

The first is the degree to which sixteen year-olds should be treated as adults. Both Sheerman and Rossiter were in no doubt they are still children, and should not be thrown out into the world without sufficient guidance or qualifications. Meanwhile, Willets and Smithers were concerned that sixteen year-olds are already constrained adults, and that attempting to control them to such a large degree was bound to be counter-productive.

It seems to me our muddled sense of when one reaches adulthood is to blame for a lot of unnecessary political wranglings. We allow people to smoke, marry, and condone sex and procreation, from age 16, yet we do not allow people to drive until 17. The voting age remains 18, as does the age at which you can buy alcohol, and (bizarrely, to my mind) we are perfectly at ease in allowing people to choose a religion at age 10, 12 or 14. Surely the mental calculus by which we deem someone responsible enough to do one activity, applies equally to the other activities?

Clearly, all these activities are related to ideas of freedom, choice, and responsibility. Below the age, and you are deemed incapable of making those choices, or wielding wisely the responsibility entrusted to you. In terms of our relationship to the state, it seems reasonable to say that childhood may be defined as the age when the rest of society does not allow you to make your own decisions. Therefore, it is legitimate to constrain the freedom of a child – a second class citizen – from an adult. Above that age, you’re responsible for your actions. Below it, your legal guardian carries-the-can. It would seem sensible to concile the various ‘coming of age’ ages into one, easy-to-remember figure.

To my mind, sixteen seems too young to do most stuff, but eighteen seems to old to prevent someone from driving or having sex. What say we just agree to split the difference, and have a universal age of adulthood at age 17? As with current arrangements, there will always be people who are constrained by this, and others who cannot handle the responsibility. But no more or less than the current situation.

Either that, or why not formalize teenagerdom as a third legal category of person? They could have a similar set of rights to those attempting to earn citizenship. That might help some of those sullen teenagers get a job, and learn proper English…

5 thoughts on “On Childhood and Citizenship”

  1. It’s interesting that you frame these things in terms of responsibility. I don’t think there should be responsibility without power. And with such a limited life experience and emotional maturity, and with certain exploitative aspects of our culture, I’m not sure that everyone is empowered to make their best decisions at 16, or 17 come to that. It’s one thing to talk about constraining teenagers, but where is the talk of protection? Where is our responsibility towards them?

    The reason people aren’t allowed to buy alcohol before 18 is for their own protection. And it’s pretty disgusting that we allow 16-year-olds to buy cigarettes. We should be protecting young people from this appalling threat to their health, no? Pretty much everyone with a smoking addiction started young. If you don’t start before 18 or 20, the odds are you never will. Interesting, huh? As for 16-year-olds driving, I would be v.concerned about the males, quite frankly, about the danger, statistically, that this would pose both to them and other road users. 17-24 year olds, statistically speaking, are bad enough.

    Teenagers themselves may not like to hear it, because by definition they lack the perspective to see the truth in it, and you can’t know what you don’t know, but they are both a vulnerable, and potentially dangerous group in certain ways, and both they and the wider society need to be protected from those risks, such as they are.

    In recent debates about the appallingness of some teenage behaviour, I hear the argument that it is largely caused by the adult generation totally failing them, and abdicating our responsibility towards them. And I have to say I agree. This post seems to be another example of that. I also think that what’s wrong is not the age of majority, but the lack of guidance and support given in preparation for it.

    And a child is not a second-class citizen, Rob! Children are afforded way more protection than adults are. Because children have different needs and abilities, andresponsibilities compared to adults, it is perfectly right and proper that the constraints and protections afforded them should be commensurate with that. Calling children second-class citizens is not only incorrect, but in some ways, a reversed description of the actual reality. If you convince people with this argument, you’ll be doing immeasurable harm to children, I’d say.

  2. Yes, I think you’re right about the “second class citizen” thing. They are different class of citizen, to be sure. You’re probably also right that preparation for adulthood is woefully lacking in some quarters.

    I’m struggling to understand why you think this post is ‘failing’ teenagers!? Is it simply because I am suggesting that the age of majority should be lower? All I am doing, is making the (not particularly controversial) claim that the age of majority is too low for some things for some people, and too high for other things for other people. One boy’s protection is another man’s unnecessary paternalism, and you’ll never get it right for everyone. But if we are going to be arbitrary about these things, we may as well be consistent and simply set a simple standard for everything. Its ludicrous that someone not old enough to be tried in an adult court can get married, surely?

  3. Hmm…

    A very interesting issue and a thoughtful post.

    Here’s one reason why there might be a sliding scale with differing ages for differing things. If your decision affects only you or others who consent to be a part of such a decision – I’m thinking sex and marriage from your list above – then your immaturity affects only you and those who chose to consent to be a part of that decision knowing your immaturity.

    When your decision affects others who do NOT have any influence on your choice – I’m thinking voting in particular and driving (I don’t choose to be crashed into by an inexperienced driver) – then yes, more maturity is required.

    There are – as you rightly point out – some peculiar inconsistencies – e.g. 16 for tobacco but 18 for alcohol – but that does not detract at all from my argument above – it merely suggests that some decisions are not in the right category.

    As for the second class citizen thing, I saw Pschaw and wave dismissively in your general direction. Such second-classness is entirely temporary. Wait two years and you are no longer second class. That there is a grey area between childhood and adulthood is a truism of such triviality that I’m surprised we are going over it again.

    As for the lack of preparation for adulthood, this has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the ages at which certain actions become legal. Nothing at all. The issue here starts in early childhood and remains so throughout teenage years. Whether you can smoke or drink at 17 is utterly and completely irrelevant.

  4. Cleanthes, I’m not sure whether the complaint about the ‘truism’ is directed at me or Clarice. I’m certainly not claiming that the fact that there is a grey area is any kind of insight. Rather, I’m saying that since laws and policies cannot really cope with a grey area, the cut-off point is a necessary, if arbitrary innovation. Setting “the age at which society allows you to make your own decisions” is more for society’s benefit, than the individual. I think it is this notion that Clarice is disagreeing with…

  5. But I’m arguing that the (trivially true) grey area means that it is perfectly sensible to have different ages for different things that require different levels of maturity.

    And of course this is for society’s benefit: it just simply doesn’t follow that there is one go/no-go age limit for everything.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *