When is a child no longer a child? In most of the civilized world, that is determined, not by physical or mental maturity, but rather by law. A child becomes an adult the second he or she reaches the age of majority. The transition from childhood to adulthood is sudden, fixed in statute law.
The actual age of majority itself is an arbitrary number that officially designates the chronological age at which a "minor child" transcends into an adult. It has no scientific basis. It is, in fact, unrelated to any mental capabilities or any other physical or physiological variables other than age.
Even so, it carries with it enormous legal implications. In general, minor children are not legally responsible for much of anything. Parental consent is a prerequisite for their behaviour.
"The requirement of parental consent is based upon the belief that there is a certain age below which young persons... are likely to be in need of parental guidance and restraint," concluded the Institute of Law Research and Reform.
But there is no hard-and-fast rule with regard to the chronological age at which an individual acquires the mental capacity to achieve abstract or deductive reasoning.
"(Some) children aged 14 have developed abstract reasoning skills," say researchers at St. Mary's University.
The concept of age of majority is archaic. It dates to the Tenares Abolition Act of 1660 in England, which established the age of majority as 21 as a direct result of matters related to the feudal system of land tenure. That system effectively faded into history a long time ago. But the age of majority remained, an ideological dinosaur whose rationale has become increasingly controversial.
One perplexing feature in North America is the age of majority is not at all consistent among jurisdictions. It is 19 in British Columbia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Nunavut, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories and Yukon Territory, but 18 elsewhere in Canada. In some U.S. states, the age of majority is 21 and individuals under that age require parental permission to marry.
There seems to be no rational reason for the discrepancies in ages of majority. An 18-year-old is considered an adult in Alberta, but that same individual is a minor in British Columbia. Is one to assume youths in British Columbia are more needy of parental guidance for longer than youths in Alberta? There is scant psychological or physiological basis for such a distinction, researchers have pointed out.
Specifically, with regard to the age of majority figure of 21 years, the Ontario Law Reform Commission is on record as observing "the only magic in 21 is that it is well-known because it has long been established." So long, indeed, the factors that brought it into being have long-since vanished into oblivion.
Researchers suggest the transition from childhood into adulthood is not a matter that should be dictated by statute. Some have suggested a case-by-case basis would make more sense.
"Good parents know that the way to help their sons and daughters of any age is to hold tight with loose hands," reported the Latey Commission in England. "We recommend removing the knuckle-duster of the law: the need for parental consent should cease at the age of 18."
According to the International Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, the age of majority is a crucial development in a teen's life
"It is an important matter for debt collectors, as when a consumer reaches the age of majority, (he or she) obtains the ability to enter into an enforceable contract," the IACCP pointed out.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, certain international travel restrictions can pertain to individuals who have not reached the age of majority in the jurisdiction where they live if they travel without formal parental consent. Some nations refuse to admit minors that are not accompanied by parents unless they are in possession of a letter of permission signed by both parents.
Curiously, the ancient common law had a remedy for discrepancies in childhood cognitive development as they might relate to the age of majority. The concept, called the "mature minor," introduced a flexibility in how the age of majority might be applied.
"(That doctrine) supports the position that a minor who can understand and appreciate the nature and consequences of his/her decisions and its alternatives is able to give valid consent regardless of age," reported the Research Ethics Board in 2009.
Some researchers have suggested the matter of the age of majority should be revisited and modernized so as to be consistent with accumulating scientific findings on childhood cognitive development.
Robert Alison is a zoologist and freelance writer based in Victoria, B.C.