Someone on Yahoo Answers recently asked a question to the effect of, “Do you consider 16-year-olds to be adults?”

As of this writing, I’ve not been able to get my rather lengthy response through Yahoo’s wall of technological uselessness to actually post it, but I was rather pleased with myself, and Alex agreed, so I am reprinting it here.

I responded thusly:


Sixteen is biologically an adult, which ought to be what matters most.

Most of the thumbs-down I’m about to get will be from people claiming 16-year-olds are too immature to be considered adults. But two questions must be raised. the first is, “What constitutes maturity?” The second is, “Why are people at sixteen immature?”

The answer to the first is, in a very simplistic way, the ability to get along with people and live a productive life. To act properly around other people, to behave kindly and politely, to demonstrate self-discipline, and to speak from one’s experience in an articulate and well-reasoned way. Also, to be able to keep and hold a job (finally legal at age 16 – a cripplingly long wait for some people), to keep up with one’s education (I specifically say education and not schooling – one has nothing at all to do with the other), and to continue to seek self-improvement.

Why, then, do we universally consider 16-year-olds devoid of most of these qualities? Well, this raises two issues on its own.

The first being that sixteen-year-olds are no more universally devoid of these qualities than 25-year-olds, 40-year-olds, or 70-year-olds. There are incompetent, drunken, abusive, obnoxious, irresponsible people of every age. If we required that 100% of the population be mature at any given age, no one would ever be considered an adult.

The second being, why are sixteen-year-olds MORE LIKELY to appear devoid of these defining qualities. The simple answer to this one is, why shouldn’t they be? They are given no incentive to live up to higher standards. Does acting more financially responsible get them access to a bank account of their own? No. Does being well-versed in modern political thought earn them the vote? No. Does holding down a job, continuing their education, and being in all ways a responsible adult guarantee them the freedom to move about their own country, to rent their own home, and to achieve even the smallest measure of guaranteed escape from their parents rule, benevolent or tyrannical may it be? No. After sixteen years of being told that the words of anyone under 18 might as well be spat into the wind, what reason do people have to live up to anything better? They are entrusted with no more responsibility. They gain access to no greater freedoms. In the eyes of law and society someone 16 has more in common with someone 5 than with someone 18.

But none of these things are beyond their grasp. At 16 people have been generals, kings, priests, medicine men, explorers. I read just recently of a five year old girl who is an experienced mountaineer, and just a while before that a man of 18 elected mayor of a not insubstantial Pennsylvania city. The capacities of the young have been grossly underestimated this past century. In societies where the division between childhood and adulthood is neither so artificially prolonged, nor so rigidly enforced, there is a higher incident of mental health, good adjustment, values regarding family, work, and money that we would consider conservative, and a stronger sense of community.

In short, everything that people come out and say is wrong with people at age 16, is caused by people saying there is anything wrong with people at age 16.