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The distinction between a child and an adult

The other day, in a discussion at work, an interesting question came up. At what age do children stop being children and start to be considered as adults? 18? 21? Actually, the answer to this seemingly simple question is not that simple at all.

In most countries, including the US, 18 is the “legal age” that delineates between childhood and adulthood. In some countries it is a bit older (e.g. it’s 19 in many parts of Canada) or younger (e.g. it’s 16 in the UK). And in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, it’s 17.

Now what does “coming of age” mean? In most countries, adulthood comes with a lot of privileges and responsibilities. As an “adult” member of the society, a person can

  • Vote
  • Run for office
  • Have a “real” job (and pay taxes!)
  • Engage in a contract
  • Drive
  • Purchase, possess and drink alcoholic beverages
  • Serve his/her country (e.g. be drafted into military service)
  • Get married without parental consent
  • Make medical decisions without parental consent

There are however, some ambiguities and inconsistencies to this list.

In the US, for examples, a person is considered an “adult” at age 18, and is treated as an adult in most of the items listed above, except the part about alcoholic drinks, where 21 is the minimum drinking legal age.

In some cases, a court of law can decide whether a person who is legally a minor can nevertheless be allowed to make a legally binding decision without a parent’s or guardian’s consent.

This was the case of Hannah Jones, who refused to have a heart transplant that she badly needed. She’d rather stay home and take her chances, she said, after having gone through lots of medical ordeal since she was diagnosed with leukemia as a child. Hannah was only 13 years old but the British court upheld her decision despite the objections of health authorities. In supporting her decision, the court accepted that she was “adult enough” to make her own decision in this rather critical issue.

There are many cases in history when the distinction between children (also called minors) and adults become blurred. I just hope that for my children, the transition would be easy, smooth, and uncontroversial.


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