When does a child become an adult? Is it when a child drives solo for the first time at 16 or 17? Is it when a girl becomes pregnant? Girls can get pregnant at 8. Girls can have an abortion at 13 (although some states require parental consent). Do we really consider the ability to drive, get pregnant or have an abortion indicators of adulthood?
18 is the most common legal chronological age attached to adulthood. Boys, now men, sign the selective services roster when they are 18. While 18 is the legal age of adulthood, it will be another three years before that adult can legally drink alcohol. At 18, you can legally fight in a war, have an abortion, and drive but you cannot purchase a beer in a bar.
Several recent events have contested or diminished the meaning of 18. Health care reform will now allow parents to keep their children on their health insurance policies until they are 26. Are we now postponing adulthood? Are we saying that in the current economy, people become adults eight years later?
Abby Sunderland’s attempt to sail around the world at 16 has been a useful catalyst for debates over when adulthood begins. What do we imagine Sunderland might have learned in the year and a half before her 18th birthday that would have made her any safer in the ocean than she tried to be now? But if she had been 18, the current debate over her parent’s competence would not have been relevant. Being 18 is being an adult.
Instead of being fixated on any age as the chronological beginning of adulthood, what if we think more deeply about what skills we deem essential to adulthood? In that reflection, we can begin to prepare everyone for true interdependence.