A. When Does a Child Become an Adult?

     Before we attempt to draw the lines between
pre-persons/persons and between persons/former persons,
let us turn to a more familiar distinction
—drawing the line between child/adult.
If we are now adults, we were once children.
But when did this transition occur?
     And if we become parents, we will confront the question again
when our children claim the rights and responsibilities of adulthood.

     How we handle this familiar distinction
might help us to face the more difficult and unfamiliar question
of drawing the line between pre-persons/persons
and between full persons/former persons.
Modern medicine and technology have made it necessary to ask
when a human becomes a person or ceases to be a person.
This is because many pre-persons and former persons
can be kept ‘alive’ indefinitely by life-support systems.
Before such technology was invented, many would have died
because there was no way to sustain them
if their bodies could not sustain themselves.
     In the process of deciding when a child becomes an adult,
we immediately find ourselves asking two background questions:
1. Who is drawing the line?
2. For what purposes is the line being drawn?

     (Similar questions will reappear
when we attempt to distinguish between pre-persons/persons
and between full persons/former persons.)
     Unless we know who is drawing the line and why,
we will not be able to decide when children become adults.
Children have different rights and responsibilities from adults.
But children become adults at different ages,
depending on the specific rights and responsibilities being considered.
     Here are some historical examples of drawing the line
between the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood:

     The end of innocence, the beginning of moral responsibility:
When does a child become morally responsible for his/her acts?
In the Roman Catholic tradition,
a child is capable of committing a mortal sin at 7 years of age.
In Judaism adulthood begins at age 13.
Generally, we think of children becoming responsible for their acts
somewhere between 7 and 12 years of age.

     Driving age:
Depending on the state, we regard children as old enough to drive
automobiles and farm machinery when they reach 15-18 years of age.

     School-leaving age:
Children are legally permitted to drop out of school at about age 16.
Introduction                           WHEN IS A PERSON?                           by James Park   5

     Age of consent for sex:
Children are adult enough to decide their own sexual behavior
somewhere between 15-18 years of age.
When a child below the age of consent has sex with an adult,
it is entirely the responsibility of the adult.
This is ‘statutory rape’ or sexual abuse of a child,
even if the child verbally gave ‘consent’.

     Drinking and smoking age:
Each society that controls the consumption of alcohol and tobacco
defines the age at which a person is responsible enough
to make informed decisions about the use of these substances.
In the United States, the drinking age is controlled by the states.
Generally, it has been between 18 and 21 years of age.

     Voting age:
Persons become old enough to vote when they reach 18 to 21,
depending on the country and the period of history.

     Age of marriage without parental consent:
Children are old enough to enter the adult institution of marriage
when they reach 18-21, depending on the jurisdiction.
And in some cultures (especially those with arranged marriages)
children can be married at much younger ages,
but they still do not become full adults until somewhat later.

     Draft age:
Males have been deemed old enough to fight at about 18.

     Adult criminal responsibility:
When persons are still children,
their parents are often held responsible for their misbehavior.
And the criminal acts of children are dealt with in different courts
with different rules of procedure and different penalties.
(But sometimes the crime itself is serious enough
for the child to be certified as an adult and tried in adult court.)
Children found guilty are sent to juvenile correctional facilities.
And when they become adult (at 18), they are often released.

     Contract capacity:
Generally persons are able to enter into contracts
for work and borrowing, etc. when they reach age 18.
Contracts for children who are still minors
must be co-signed by a parent or guardian.

     Age for borrowing without a co-signer:
When lending institutions lend large amounts of money
(for a car or a house, for instance), they generally require
a co-signer if the borrower is younger than 20-25.
Experience has shown lenders that young adults are poor risks.

     Age for adult auto insurance rates:
Insurance companies have learned that young adults are bad risks,
because they have more accidents than older adults.
Thus (especially males) must pay higher premiums until about age 25.

     Age for being President:
The writers of the US Constitution decided that a man
(later women were also allowed to vote and hold office)
had to be 35 years of age to be mature enough to govern the country.
     The fact that the line between child and adult has been drawn
anywhere between age 7 and age 35 shows lack of consensus
about just when a person ceases being a child and becomes an adult.
Much of this variation can be accounted for by the fact
that different responsibilities are being assumed by these people.
A child of 7 might be responsible for making personal moral decisions.
But that person would not be trusted to make Presidential decisions.
     Each family has its own, informal turning points in a young life:
When is a child old enough to stay out after midnight?
When is a child old enough to wash the dishes
and take responsibility for other household tasks?
When is a child old enough to have sex?
When old enough to drive the family car?
When is a girl old enough to use make-up or have her ears pierced?

     In most of these parent/child struggles, the parents decide.
But they should take the maturity of each child into account.
     Courts of law also hear status questions.
Lawyers often ask courts to make exceptions to general rules
defining when minors become adults,
for instance, concerning large legacies.
At the other end of life, the mental competence of someone
who makes an estate plan might be challenged
by relatives who do not agree its contents.
The detractors might argue that the drawer was incompetent,
under undue influence, did not know what he or she was signing, etc.
Introduction                           WHEN IS A PERSON?                           by James Park   7

     And the state legislatures are constantly asked to change the age
at which children become adult for various purposes.
(For example, the drinking age has been changed frequently.)

     Seeing the difficulty of defining when a child becomes an adult,
we should not be surprised to discover that it is even more difficult
to draw the line between pre-persons/full persons
and between full persons/former persons.

    The three and a half pages quoted above
come from the 2009 edition of
When Is a Person? Pre-Persons & Former Persons by James Park.
The complete table of contents will appear if you click the title above.
The page numbers appear at the bottoms of the pages.
Several words have bold face in the printed version.
These additional features do not appear in this Internet version.

Created 10-29-2008; Revised 1-17-2009

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